How not to speak to a suicidal person

Marguerite de Leon
How not to speak to a suicidal person
Making light of suicide is the wrong way to help

This piece is in response to a recent Rappler iSpeak article by Guia Roa Soriano, entitled “Laslas puso, saksak pulso? Huwag na”. 

I understand full well that Ms Soriano only had the best of intentions when writing her essay, but you know what they say about the road to hell. I am glad she took the time to try and write something about this topic at all – we need to end this stigma towards tackling mental health if we want any real progress – but her piece was unfortunately misguided, misinformed, and at the heart of it, quite dangerous to both the discourse on suicide, and the discourse on mental health. 

I will be blunt: hers is not how an article on tackling suicide should be. I feel so strongly about this because I suffer from clinical depression and have attempted to end my life many times, and in my years of trying to come to grips with my thoughts, I’ve learned about the proper way of talking to a suicidal person. I’ve read up on it, and have experienced it directly when certain people try to calm me down on very difficult days.

Ms Soriano’s article is the polar opposite of what I’ve learned. It contains everything I’ve been taught not to do or say, and I wouldn’t wish anyone to use this “advice” on anyone else.

The tone of the piece was trying hard to be humorous, an attempt to elbow the suicidal person in the ribs and say they’re being ridiculous. This in itself already rings alarm bells, because making light of something so damningly serious results in only one thing: invalidating the suicidal person’s emotions.

One thing you should never do is to make the suicidal person feel that the immense pain and hurt they’re going through isn’t legitimate, or isn’t really worth looking into. You’re talking to someone whose self-worth is absolutely nil already, and then tell them they’re just being sappy and silly? This person wants to willingly end their life – let that sink in for a bit – and you think tut-tutting and telling them that what they want to do is frivolous and burdensome to others will make everything better? 

At the core of the essay’s tone is shame. To label someone contemplating suicide as “emo”; to paint the picture of suicide as something messy, disgusting, and embarrassing; to suggest that a suicidal person isn’t trying hard enough to look at the brighter side of life; all of this boils down to shaming people for going through a very real, and very, very difficult time. 

So how should someone talk to a suicidal person? Understanding has to be dealt in spades. You may never be able to fully relate to what the person is going through, and that’s only natural. But the very least you can do is to try and see things from the person’s perspective. You have to be patient and accept that something extraordinarily difficult is happening to them because, well, something is.

Acknowledgment is also important. Let them know that you are aware that they are going through something horrible. Suicidal people feel incredibly fragile, alone, and hopeless, so showing them that you are present can do a lot. 

Admittedly, I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter way of getting someone to reconsider taking their life. Dealing with suicide, whether you are the subject or the companion, will often be like walking through a minefield. But some approaches are clearly better than others, and some approaches may do far more harm than good.

If you’re unsure of what to do, read up. Do your research. This is also why speaking up about suicide, if you yourself have considered or attempted it, can be worlds of help. The more people learn about what it’s really like, the more they’ll be able to help effectively. 

Bottom line: When you’re with a suicidal person, really be there for them. Take them seriously. Be present, listen, and reassure them that they are not alone as they go through this time of pain. –

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.