Last night, Chester Bennington died by suicide after a lifelong struggle with mental illness and substance dependence. He was 41. I was in shock, and it has sent waves of pain and desperation through the mental health community.
In a group I’m in, someone asked a question that requires a better answer than what we are often able to provide. And a question that should be asked more often.
When someone is suicidal or generally struggling with mental illness, we tell them (especially young people) to talk to someone. Reach out. Connect with a person. Tell them how you feel.
But what if you are the person they choose?
What do you do?
How can you help them?
This was my response, as someone who has lived in the depths and worked to lift others out of them. Offering genuine support that is harm-reductive isn’t something we are generally taught. I hope these words might prove helpful to someone.
Don’t ask them how you can help. Don’t ask how to fix it. Don’t focus on trying to change how they feel. Don’t ask, “What do you need?”. If they knew, they wouldn’t be considering suicide.
Ask them, “What hurts?” and LISTEN. Look them in the eyes. Furrow your brow in gentle concern. Nod your head when they talk, and mimic their facial expressions and body language to communicate that you are feeling what they feel; that they are not alone. Say they’re not alone, but more importantly, you need to show it.
Ask questions about their experience, then reflect back on them. The best thing can say, in my opinion, is “Wow, person. Can I be totally honest? If I were you, if I lived through all that you’ve lived through and suffered the way you’ve suffered, I would be feeling the same way as you. Life hasn’t been fair. You didn’t deserve to be abused by that person. You should have had a shot at being in honor society in 1997. It hurts to be rejected from your dream job. Anyone in your position would feel how you feel. I’m sorry that I didn’t ever ask until now what you’ve been carrying.”
Just witness them. Spend some time here, in this space where they are fully seen and their emotions are fully and completely validated. Even if you personally and privately think their reasons are “dumb”, keep it to yourself. This isn’t about you. Process this with your therapist or a trusted someone later. Hold space for them completely.
If things feel lighter (honestly I always say you need to use intuition on this and if you struggle with social intuition…look for body language that seems more calm / less defensive or more confident. Listen for their tone more steady and vibrant) then move onto helping them back up. Now that you’ve sat with them and processed some of the pain, tell them some truly motivating things.
Not just “It gets better” or something generic like “You are so strong.” Something that might reignite a flame in their core that offers true light.
Imagine them as a little kid–what’s the thing you can see them running home from school carrying in their hands, thrilled to show their parents & excited for an encouraging reaction? What is their strongest skill, and the place where they carry the most power in this world? Is it art? Is it brilliance dealing with people? Is it handling cars? Think of what you can envision this person slaying the fuck out of life at, and tell them.
Then weave this into a heartfelt, powerful reminder of who they are. What is their essence? Remind them. Remember the comfort of hearing a story? The safety of a world contained in words with a narrative that crafts meaning from otherwise disjointed events. Offer them this; a moment where you expend the mental energy and objectivity they currently do not have, and thread the events of their life into something coherent, something with purpose and direction. This is active, engaged emotional processing.
Be specific and be honest, but not pressuring that they live up to an ideal. Communicate to them that you see the depths of their pain but also the heights of their potential. This is, in my opinion & experience, the most healing and intimate way you can connect with people.
All people want is to be seen, and held. People who suffer this deeply have not been seen or held the way they deserve.
This advice is not exhaustive, and if someone is actively harming themselves or threatening to do so, you should take immediate action by contacting a mental health professional. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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