September is National Suicide Prevention Month in the U.S. In honor of this month, we’ll share resources and highlight ways that everyone can make a difference in the life of a suicidal teen or adult.
If you have a family member or friend who is struggling with depression or another mental health issue, they might be suicidal. But there’s often no way to really know for sure unless they tell you—or you ask.
But how do you ask? What do you say?
An Unlikely Suicide Expert
Kevin Briggs is an unlikely suicide expert. Though he does have professional training in suicide prevention, he is not a mental health clinician. Rather, he’s a former police officer who had a unique job: patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. Most of his 23 years working for the California Highway Patrol have been spent canvassing the Bridge to prevent suicidal teens, men and women from jumping off.
Don’t think this is a full-time job? Think again. Since the construction of the bridge, about 1,600 people have committed suicide. Briggs, though, has personally saved hundreds of suicidal individuals from jumping off the edge. In a widely publicized Ted Talk he gave in 2014, he shared his secrets for preventing these people from imminently committing suicide.
Talking and Listening
Talk to them.
When Briggs reaches a suicidal individual on the cord of the bridge, he is literally the last barrier before death. In those situations, he just starts talking. “I’ve talked to people from ten minutes to seven hours. I very much despise losing. I do whatever I can to get that person back over the rail,” he once said in an interview. What do you talk to them about? Anything they want to. Their life. Their struggles. Why they feel hopeless. Tell them that you care about what they’re going through—even if no one else does. Try to show them, with your words, that they are valuable and loved.
“In my experience, it’s not just the talking that you do, but the listening,” says Briggs. “Listen to understand. Don’t argue, blame, or tell the person you know how they feel, because you probably don’t.” While they’re talking, show, with your body language, that you’re listening to them carefully. That you respect what they’re saying. That you’re not here to judge them, only to listen. Out of the hundreds of suicidal men and women he’s met, Briggs has saved them all with this tactic—except two.
Your presence matters.
“By just being there, you may just be the turning point that they need,” says Briggs. Don’t underestimate the power of just being next to them. In fact, if the person you’re talking to is acutely suicidal, don’t leave their side even for a second.
One incident that occurred recently was with two women who were driving on a freeway in Agoura Hills, California. One of them noticed a man standing on the side of the overpass, outside the chain-link fence, ready to jump. They called 911. But instead of just doing that and driving on to their destination, they turned around. They got out of their car. The two women stayed with the man until police came, talking to him and gently trying to coax him to come back over the side of the fence. “We looked at him and the first thing we said is, you know, ‘We love you, please don’t jump.'” He said he had nothing to live for, and he had no reason to be here on earth anymore,” one of the women told CNN. “I kind of locked eyes with him and just said, ‘I’m here for you, I’ve been sent as your guardian. I need you to listen to me. Just look at me and listen to my words.’” That day, they ended up saving his life.
How to Know When Someone is Suicidal
Of course, if someone has shared with you that they’re considering suicide—and you’re not a police officer like Kevin Briggs—get them help right away. If it’s an emergency, call 911 immediately or take the teen (or adult) to the nearest hospital. Never leave their side until they’re admitted. In other situations, you can also refer them to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, whose number is 1-800-273-8255. For teens who prefer texting over calling, tell them about the Crisis Text Line. They can text HOME to 741741 and speak to a trained crisis counselor about anything they’d like to talk about. Additionally, you can always bring up the topic of mental health treatment. There are specific mental health treatment programs for teens and adults who are struggling with suicidal ideation.
But what if you’re not sure if someone is suicidal? How do you even bring up the topic? According to Briggs, ask them directly. Even if it seems awkward—or morbid. He says one way of confronting the person is by asking them the following question:
“Others in similar circumstances have thought about ending their life; have you had these thoughts?” This type of direct questioning – no beating around the bush – may just help save their life.
Signs to Look For
When do you have reason to believe someone might be suicidal? There are several signs. Here are a few:
- Frequent sadness and / or excessive guilt
- Feeling hopeless, like nothing will ever get better
- Increased withdrawal from family, friends, and normal activities
- Difficulties getting over a recent loss or rejection
- Changes in sleeping or eating habits
- Giving away favorite or valuable possessions
- Being focused on death and dying (e.g. writing poems about death, drawing pictures that depict death or dying)
- Increased moodiness, irritability, hostility, aggressiveness, or anger outbursts
- Loss of interest in things that they once really enjoyed
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Writing suicide notes
- Saying goodbye to loved ones and friends
It could be a best friend. It could be a family member. But other times, it doesn’t even have to be someone you’re close with. It could be someone you just met a few weeks ago. Or today. Think deeply for a minute: Is there anyone you know who might be feeling depressed? Anyone you think could use some extra TLC today?
Everyone Briggs has helped has been a stranger.
With a little bit more compassion, empathy, and care for other people—even if it means we have to go out of our comfort zone—we can all save a life.