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When A Loved One Is Suicidal

Many Americans have mistaken ideas about the suicidal feelings that result from major depression. Depressed people who say they are suicidal are often not taken seriously by their friends and family. (For example, a day before a 14-year-old boy went on a shooting spree in a Georgia school, he told his friend that he wanted to kill himself. "You're crazy," came the reply.) What follows are some do's and don'ts on what to say to a suicidal individual.

DO ask people with suicidal symptoms if they are considering killing themselves. Contrary to popular opinion, it will not reinforce the idea. "In fact, it can prevent suicide," says Dr. Joseph Richman, professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Since the suicidal person feels isolated and alienated, the fact that someone is concerned can have a healing effect.

DON'T act shocked or disapproving if the answer to the question "Are you suicidal?" is "Yes." Don't say that suicide is dumb or that the person should "snap out of it." Suicidal feelings are part of being clinically depressed, just as a high white blood cell count is a symptom of an infection.

DON'T lecture a suicidal individual about the morality or immorality of suicide, or about responsibility to the family. A person in a state of despair needs support, not an argument.

DO remove from easy reach any guns or razors, scissors, drugs or other means of self-harm.

DO assure the person that although it may not feel like it, suicidal feelings are temporary.

DO ask the person if he or she has a specific plan. If the answer is yes, ask him to describe it in detail. If the description seems convincing, urge the person to call a mental-health professional right away. If he or she is not seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, offer a ride to the emergency room for evaluation, or call the local crisis line-or (888) SUICIDE - (888) 784-2433.

DO make a "no-suicide" contract. This means that the person agrees (in words or in writing) that if he feels on the verge of hurting himself, he will not do anything until he first calls you or another support person. You in turn promise that you will be available to help in any way you can. Ideally, it is best if the suicidal person has prepared a list of people (three or more is ideal) that he or she can contact in the midst of a crisis.

DON'T promise to keep the suicidal feelings a secret. Such a decision can block much-needed support and put the person at greater risk. If a person needs help from a medical professional or a crisis-intervention center, make sure that he or she gets it, even if you have to go along.

DO pay particular attention to the period after a depressive episode, when the person is beginning to feel better and has more energy. Ironically, this may be a time when he or she is more vulnerable to suicide.

DO assure the person that depression is a treatable illness and that help is available. If the individual is too depressed to find support, do what you can to help him or her find support systems-e.g., psychotherapy, medical treatment, and support groups that are described in this book.

DO call a suicide hotline or crisis hotline if you have any questions about how to deal with a person you think may be suicidal. Help is available for you, the caregiver.

Finally, there exist a number of telephone hot lines and Internet sites that can provide immediate support and relief for anyone who is struggling with feelings of suicide.

1. American Suicide Survival Line (888) SUICIDE - (888) 784-2433.
This nationwide suicide telephone hotline provides free 24-hour crisis counseling for people who are suicidal or who are suffering the pain of depression.

2. The Samaritans Suicide Hotline (212) 673-3000
or e-mail: jo@samaritans.org. They will respond to your e-mail within 24 hours.

3. Covenant House Nineline (800) 999-9999 http://www.covenanthouse.org
This hotline provides crisis intervention, support and referrals for youth and adults in crisis, including those who are feeling depressed and suicidal.

4. Internet site: http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/ This is an excellent Web site which I visited when I was suicidal. I credit it with being one of the factors that prevented me from taking my life.

5. Internet site: http://www.save.org/ This is the Web site for SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), whose mission is to educate others about suicide and to speak for suicide survivors. I also frequented this Internet site when I was suicidal and found it to be extremely helpful.

6. Internet site: http://www.preventsuicide.net/ This is a Web site that strives to help the victims and family members of suicide by providing information and resources. It serves in living memory of someone who took his life.

7. Your local crisis line: Virtually every city and county has a mental health crisis line that is open 24 hours a day. These provide immediate crisis counseling and may even offer to send one or peopl e to directly meet with the person in crisis. You can call a local mental health clinic to obtain your local crisis line number.

Another option is to visit this web site: http://suicidehotlines.com. If you scroll down that website, you will be able to look up the crisis lines that are available in your state.