When asked to write this post, it took me by surprise - "What do you say to someone who survived an attempt to take their own life". Why was I surprised, because this is sometimes overlooked because we expect the survivor to thrive as they are still alive.
We may have survived, but the situation that caused the event is still there.
The term used by professionals for those who take their own life is 'successful suicide', those who survive is termed an 'unsuccessful suicide' or sometimes 'an attempted suicide'. For those reading this who follow me will know that words are very important. So, why are we telling those who are still alive that they were unsuccessful or failed in their attempt! Insensitive.
As previously discussed in earlier posts, suicide is an extreme emotional response to a single or series of emotional events, most often with one of those events happening within the last 24 to 48 hours. The person has overwhelming feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, unable to see a way forward.
When we are under any emotional pressure, we all go into fight-or-flight. In fight-or-flight we can do two things, stay (fight) or go (flight). Freeze happens when we are so overcome with fright that our brain is unsure of what to do.
That's how to view suicide, our natural fight-or-flight response when emotionally overwhelmed.
So, what should you say and do when a loved one survives? The answer is not always that obvious. Yes, it is great to celebrate that they are still with you. Yes, it is fantastic that you can hug and kiss them. And, of course you need to show your true love for that person. But that's not enough.
Nothing changes, if nothing changes. The circumstances that encouraged the person towards suicide is almost always still there. And that is the most important thing to remember, if the situation is the same for the survivor then the risk remains, probably an even greater risk following the event.
For those who I have intervened with as a crisis negotiator, all had feelings of being a failure. They view coming off the bridge/high place (or putting down the knife/firearm) as an inability to take their own life, this following their feelings of being unable to handle life. A double failure. Convincing someone not to go through with suicide is fraught with risk.
The most difficult part of any crisis negotiation is to convince the person that they are important, that they are valued, and that they will get through this.
That is what we, as those who have someone in our lives who wished to take their own life must do, tell the person that they are important. Tell them that they are valued, tell them that you are so pleased that they are still here, tell them that there is no judgement, tell them that you will always be there for them no matter what.
Hug them, cry with them, listen to them first. Then, tell them how you feel.
The survivor must get professional help, it is imperative. The next 24 to 48 hours after the event is the most dangerous period. But, what if they say no, what if they don't want to get professional help?
As mentioned earlier, the survivor has overwhelming feelings of helplessness (I can't help myself, no-one can help me) and hopelessness (there is nothing to look forward to). Giving the person those two things are what may help the most. How to do this is the key, and again it is different for each of us, so you know best what to do. Here are a few suggestions to consider;
Ask them what they want - they have to feel as though they are in control and can help themselves so give them control. Get them to find a professional that suits their personal needs, they have to trust the professional therefore they should find them.
Validate their actions - when they come up with a suggestion, acknowledge and celebrate it. Don't dismiss the action or try to change it, it is theirs to choose.
Minimise any pressure - don't push them too hard nor too fast, just because they survived does not mean that things are now okay. Acknowledge each little step they make towards moving forward.
Validate what ocurred - tell them that their feelings and their response are natural for them, that there is no guilt or shame as they had no control over their thoughts and actions at that time. They do have control now; they have a chance to now reset their life.
Look forward to good things coming up - get the person to set small milestones to look forward to, this will introduce dopamine to the brain and provide encouragement as each goal is reached.
Show them how far they have come - we seldom look back to see how far we have come. The steps may be small, however, they are steps in the right direction.
Changing the environment can have a massive impact on the way that we think. For example, you will recall where you were when you heard about a significant incident - the Christchurch events, the Twin Towers collapsing, the death of Princess Diana - our brain responds to the environment more than we give credit for.
Be honest, be sensitive, be caring. Continue to talk with the survivor whenever possible. And, keep encouraging them to get professional help.
Here are some other things that you can also try - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhV_cVphunw&t=113s
Nothing changes if nothing changes. We must change something if we want to truly help those who have survived.