When someone is suffering, it’s hard to know exactly what to say. People often have a hard time talking about suicide — or even expressing condolences to families that have lost a child or teenager. In August, NMID sat down with the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition’s Laura Harrison, a suicide loss survivor, to learn how to talk about suicide and loss.
Harrison learned these lessons the hard way. In high school, she lost a close friend to suicide. “After I got the call, I went on the Internet and found the coalition,” she says. “I was looking at the risk factors, but none of them seemed like my friend. It was just baffling.”
After her friend’s viewing, she and other friends gathered at the local Olive Garden. Speaking of their friend, each began recalling bits and pieces of what should have been warning signs. “I’m watching this conversation go around the table, and it’s like we’re ticking off all the risk factors,” she recalls. “Often, people only get one part of the puzzle.”
Harrison ended up volunteering at the coalition, and in 2008, started working there along with suicide survivor Sabrina Strong.
A self-described “stepmonster” to a teenager, Harrison has advice for parents. She laughs, saying that as a teen, her mom would make her friends fill out paperwork before they left the house. “They had to write down their names, the license plate number, the names and numbers of their parents,” says Harrison. Mortified at the time, she understands the rationale now.
“Twenty, even 10, years ago, parents would worry about you going out with your friends and making semi-good decisions,” she says, adding that parents don’t have a clue about the challenges today’s youth are navigating as technology and socializing have changed. “If you go on the Facebook page of a 14-year old, you will lose your mind,” she says. “But you have to know what’s on there, just like you have to know who your kids are texting. There are 500 different things know you need to be paying attention to.”
Below are additional, edited excerpts of NMID’s conversation with Harrison.
NMID: What do you say or do if you think someone might be at risk for suicide?
Hands down, the best thing to do is be honest and direct. Ask: “Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you thinking of suicide? Are you thinking of ending your life?”
Do not ask “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” People who are thinking about suicide are living with so much pain that that they don’t see it as hurting themselves. They see it as ending their pain.
Then you say, “I’m worried about you. How can I help? Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.” Don’t offer to fix things or solve their problems. Just sit, listen, and nod.
After you listen, persuade him or her to get help. Say, “Can I go with you to get some help? Can I make some calls for you? Who’s your insurance?” If the person doesn’t have insurance, he or she can go to places that have a sliding scale. And the crisis and access lines – like UNM’s AGORA – will find the right numbers to call for counselors.
Then, you can offer to make the appointment. There is nothing worse than calling up a counseling center and having the receptionist, who just had a fight with her boyfriend, answer the phone with a negative tone. When you’re suicidal, anything is a sign (that you should do what you’re feeling).
NMID: What should teachers do?
With teachers, when you have a kid at risk of suicide, you walk that kid to the counselor. You call the secretary and say, “watch my class,” and you walk that kid to the counselor. And if the counselor isn’t there that day, you sit there with the kid all day. That works really well in some of our bigger communities. It doesn’t work as well in smaller communities.
NMID: What should teens, siblings, friends or cousins do if they think a young person is considering suicide?
Understand you can’t fix your best friend’s problems and recognize the point where you have to get an adult involved. Know when you’re out of your league and don’t keep secrets. Tell adults what’s going on – anyone; if not their parents or your parents, then a favorite aunt, a grandmother, the soccer coach, someone.
When it feels like you’re not helping, just find an adult. It’s never a bad idea to have more than one person on your team.
What should adults and parents be doing? What do we need to know?
For parents, the most important thing is finding the time to be in the presence of your child — and I mean finding meaningful blocks of time. You should be eating dinner at the table together three nights a week so you can know your kid’s general overall mood. That way, you know the difference: How much is general teenage attitude and how much is depression?
Really, the best thing is meaningful time with your child. I don’t mean watching your kid play soccer, but doing something together. With men and boys, it might be sitting side-by-side, eyes straight ahead, playing a video game together. With moms and girls, it’s sitting across from each other, looking each other in the eye and talking.
Nowadays, we’re taking our kids to activities non-stop. There’s a sport for every season. Every kid is supposed to go to college and so they all have to have activities. We’ve forced all these things into a limited number of hours and the thing that gets cut is quality time with parents. Then parents make the mistake of saying, “when I was your age…” and that’s the number one thing (young people) hate the most!
Just take the time. I promise you, plotting a water balloon fight with your kid on your husband when he’s coming home from work is worth a million dollars in therapy.
And we need to be watching our A+ Honor Roll students as much as the “loner” student. All kids are at risk. Today, we want to give our kids everything. But that doesn’t protect them from a s—-y day.
The other thing is you need to know your kid’s friends. Joke with them when they come in so they don’t think you’re that terrible person your kid says you are. You want them to be comfortable talking to you when your kid is in trouble.
Parenting is a fundamental part of suicide prevention.
NMID: What I’ve heard is that families who have lost a child to suicide are sometimes treated differently when they’re mourning. Whereas people often flock to help families who have lost someone in an accident — bringing by casseroles and making other offers of help — it sounds like when there’s a suicide involved, a lot of times people seize up, they don’t know what to do or say.
What do you say? You say, “I’m sorry for your loss. That … sucks.” And you cry with them. It can be difficult to know what to say, but the best thing is to treat it like they lost a child in any accident. When you treat it differently, when you treat the death with anything less respectful, you’re adding to the stigma.
Suicide is so much worse than losing a child to an accident. With an accident, you have reasons for things that happened, there’s an understanding that you don’t get with suicide. With suicide, you’re left with lingering questions.
Just bring a casserole. Offer to do something. Let people cry. Learn how to be compassionate, go back to your basic manners.