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  • BY ANGELA HARVEY

The 16 Do’s and Don’ts of Helping a Person Experiencing Hopelessness

It never fails; a celebrity or one of their family members commits suicide and our

social media posts and comments blow up. There is an outpouring of dedication,

memes that speak to being available if needed, and the infamous “check on your

strong friends” commands from everyone. In a perfect world, these are things that

should happen before someone takes their own life. Before I GROW any deeper

let's talk about how we use our words.


Many folks seem to be been against using the words “committed suicide”. I would

take offense to this but I happen to know that most of those same folks also take

offense to talking about suicide, mental illness, and other challenging topics at all.

It doesn’t make a difference if you say they committed suicide, took their own life,

died by suicide, or ended their own life; the bottom line is someone believed death

was their only escape from their own perceived hopelessness.


Sad woman
Helping a Person Experiencing Hopelessness

I believe if we talked about suicide more the conversations would lend themselves

to other options; all of which include staying alive. We don’t want to talk about it before it happens, as it’s being contemplated, and surely not after it happens. We should be silent about the shame that suicide evokes in us; not silent about the act of wanting to end your life. All of the training manuals for suicide prevention tell us that asking if someone is suicidal, if they are considering suicide, if would they take their life and if they plan to kill themselves are all necessary and appropriate questions to ask. Yes, you read it right, we should be asking our strong friends, family, and others if they intend to die!! This is how we can go about helping a person experiencing hopelessness.

The bottom line is someone believed death was their only escape from their own perceived hopelessness.

When a strong loved ones call, texts, asks, or even implies that they want/need

your physical presence or direct contact to help them cope, process, or GROW

through something show up!! Saying a prayer, texting them to let them know

you’ve said a prayer, liking their cry for help post, letting them know how strong

they are, thinking of them, ignoring them, shouting them out on social media,

suggesting they feel something else, or recommending a distraction isn’t

considered helpful. It means that you didn’t listen which could mean to them that

you don’t care enough. I can tell you from experience when a strong friend can

ask for support they have exhausted any other means to emotionally recover; the

ask is usually a last resort.


If you find the courage to show up for a person in destress please:


Ask how they’re feeling.

Sad, bad, or mad are not completely descriptive enough (secondary emotions) to

paint a clear picture. As them to describe what primary emotions lead to them

feeling sad, mad, or bad. These emotions you can likely support better.


Ask what caused them to feel …

Ask the question but also be open to not knowing what happened. Many hopeless

people don’t want to talk about it but that doesn’t mean they don’t want your

support.


Validate and affirm what they are feeling.

Someone as simple as “I understand how you could feel that way” or “You have

every right to feel that way.” Invalidating what they feel doesn’t make them feel

better; it actually makes them feel worse.


Ask how you can be of support to them.

You must know what they consider supportive and show up in that way. Many

people won’t know how you can support them but you can suggest what you can

and are willing to do.


Be willing to just hold space with them.

This could mean just staying on the phone with them (in silence or talking, going

to be with them in person, being physically or virtually present, or whatever is

needed.


Ask if they are having suicidal thoughts.

How you triage a loved one determines how you treat them. As them directly and

without apology.


Ask if they want to harm or kill themselves.

Again it’s important to know the intention of the person.


Ask if they have considered how they would kill themselves.

Asking this question shows that you care and also allows you to consider what

other actions need to be taken.


Talk about what is going right/good in their life.

Start a conversation, not a line of questioning about what things are happening in

their world.


On the contrary, if you show up for a person in emotional distress please do not:


Make false promises.

If you can’t follow up, or likely won’t remember to call tomorrow or go visit next

week don’t say that you will.


Tell them how they should feel or minimize what they are feeling.

If their feelings they have could be replaced with what makes them feel good they

would have replaced them already. Don’t minimize what they are feeling by

asking them to consider feeling a more hopeful way.


Tell them how lucky they are to be alive.

When someone feels like dying they have already decided they aren’t lucky to be

alive. Prompting them to consider how lucky they are only adds to their already

adverse and overwhelming emotions.


sad man
Invalidating what they feel doesn’t make them feel better; it actually makes them feel worse.

Ask them to consider how their death would affect someone else.

This comes across as a guilt trip and can make things worse. Valuing their life by

someone else’s potential grief can put them at greater risk for self-harm.


Make it about you.

It’s one thing to understand what they are feeling and another to share your current

or previous hopelessness with a person who is in emotional turmoil.


I can tell you from experience when a strong friend can ask for support they have exhausted any other means to emotionally recover; the ask is usually a last resort.

Put them off.

If what they need or ask for is more than what you can or are willing to do don’t

put them off; hand them off instead. As if there is someone you can share this with

so that you can both support them.


Tell them you’ll keep their suicidal thoughts a secret.

If someone is and has voiced suicidal thoughts do not promise to not tell anyone.

It takes a village to provide support and you shouldn’t promise to involve other

member of their village or someone that can help you help them.


If your strong loved one is vulnerable enough to ask for help, brave enough to

show and share their struggle, bold enough to expose their emotional pain, and

bright enough to know what they need to be supported I ask that you be intentional

in showing up, bright enough to know they need your support, bold enough to be

temporarily inconvenienced, and brave enough to support them. Or at the very

least be bodacious enough to say that you can’t show up and see someone who can.


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Meet the expert:

Angela Harvey earned a master's degree in Social Work and loves helping GROWN folks GROW up.  She has 25 years of experience as a counselor, facilitator, presenter, trainer, personal GROWTH retreat host, filmmaker, columnist, and editor at large.


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