I wrote my dissertation on suicide prevention in the Western U.S. (where suicide rate are highest). I also counseled imprisoned young men and women during my doctoral residency year in Texas, and I saw firsthand how hope saves lives. In life’s difficult moments we may lose sight of hope, and that’s understandable. In fact, sometimes we may feel locked away in a prison, not of steel bars, but of hopelessness and isolation.
I never expected to work in a prison as a therapist, but my husband was accepted to a nearby university, and it was the closest doctoral residency. My first day, I felt almost overwhelming hopelessness as I read these youth’s records. Stories of their traumatic pasts struck me so deeply that I wept over their files. Common to many were histories of abuse, broken homes, and illicit substance abuse–heavy burdens for children so young. On the other hand, I felt disgusted, I felt angry, and I struggled to feel compassion as I read the stories, some in lurid detail, of why these adolescents were incarcerated. I struggled to find a balance between anger and compassion. These details settled into the background as I met and counseled with each individual. When they first arrived, the despair in their voices could not be hid as they talked about how much they had messed up and how lonely they felt. My heart hurt. Several of my inmate patients confided in me to wanting to end their life. One almost did.
While I was writing my dissertation on suicide prevention, I spoke with family and friends of one particular young man who did take his life while in prison. I listened reverently as they shared their stories. He didn’t fit the mold of a delinquent. He was a sensitive boy who loved toy trucks, helped out on his friend’s farm, and kept his baby blanket close even when it wore to shreds. I gleaned from their stories his fear of disappointing, how he heaped guilt onto himself, how he told his family he felt like he was a lost cause, and toward the end of his life, he separated himself from his friends and family. He was clinically depressed. He seemed to have lost all hope. When I later presented these findings to my dissertation committee, I sobbed through most of it. Wise mentors pointed out how in the midst of such sadness, we can glean hope from his story because certain patterns came to light: expressing hopelessness, fear about disappointing others, feeling inappropriate guilt, and self-inflicted isolation. They noted that these warning signs are lessons learned from this tragedy. Noting these warning signs and intervening we can save lives. Most importantly, we can recognize the importance of hope.
If you feel you have no one to turn to, you actually do. Turn to friends and loved ones for support. It is a myth that talking to someone else about feeling hopeless and thinking about dying leads to suicide. Being honest and asking friends, loved ones, or your spiritual leaders for help saves lives and helps you regain hope.
If a loved one, friend or student has expressed feeling hopeless, burdened with excessive guilt, and has expressed a loss of interest in life, follow-up and ask them directly if they are thinking about ending their life. If so, and if they have a plan and means of hurting themselves, they need to go to a hospital immediately. You may offer to accompany them, so that they do not feel alone.
It is important to acknowledge their suffering, listen, and ask them to talk about their feelings. Since hopelessness most often precipitates suicide it is critical that hope is encouraged and felt again. Ask, remind, and listen to their reasons to hope, including specific sources of love and support from others, and from God (if they are a spiritual person).
We can be that source of hope for each other, daily. Even through social media, we can let others know how much we care. From my dissertation research I learned that depressive disorders are the highest risk factor for suicide risk. If you know know someone who is depressed or bipolar, let them know how much you love them and how much they mean to you. Not that you could ever have controlled another’s actions, please don’t feel like there’s more you could have done in the face of tragedy (THERE ISN’T). I’m only here to give education and tools based on my skill-set. A word of caution: most suicidal behavior occurs when someone is on the “up-swing” of a bipolar episode or just coming out of a very severe depression. This happens because, when someone is deeply depressed, they often lack the energy and motivation to plan/do something drastic. However, it is still a dangerous situation because when it resolves eventually (whether to a dysthymic, hypomanic, or even manic emotionality), motivation and energy return to follow through with suicidal thoughts. Also, triggering events precede most suicidal deaths: like a break-up, fight with a loved one, being fired from your job, getting arrested, or other emotionally charged events. So it’s important to be physically present and supportive if someone you know who is struggling experienced a triggering event.
If you have lost a loved one to suicide, you are not alone. Suicide survivors can (the term used for those who have experienced this loss) experience anything from normal bereavement to profound psychological pain, which can happen immediately or take months to surface. It can be especially painful and resurface during anniversaries and birthdays of your loved one. I highly recommend seeking out a local (preferably) or online suicide survivor support group. A national database of these can be found here:
To end on a personal note, two years after I published my dissertation I lost a childhood friend to suicide. Even though I knew intellectually there’s nothing anyone could have done, I still blamed myself and became very depressed. She had recently been married, seemed happy at her wedding, and I was blindsided by how hard her life continued to be. I thought, I literally wrote a book on the subject and I didn’t save my friend. I wracked my brain for ways I could have helped her better. My husband tried to tell me what any good counselor would do to comfort me, but I still felt terrible, left his company for the bedroom, and cried alone. I felt lonely, hopeless, and helpless. But I soon heard my husband’s footsteps, and on the other side of the door he began playing an old love song on the guitar he often sang to me when we were dating. He said he didn’t want me to be alone, and that he always loved me. May we be that song of hope for each other.