A few winters back, my wife and I were driving over a bridge on a snowy day when we saw the peculiar sight of a young man standing on a wall at the edge of the bridge. We pulled over to a nearby parking lot and approached the man. He was on his phone, clearly in distress. We learned that he was talking with a trained responder on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and he said that he was planning to jump when the next train came across the tracks underneath. I informed him that I was a social worker and my wife was a pastor, and we were willing to listen to him. Upon hearing of our day jobs, he said, “I’m not going to jump today, am I?” I loved that he could keep a sense of humor even in crisis. We sat and talked with him and the trained crisis counselor on the phone until authorities came and were able to transport him to get safety and help.
Not all signs of suicidality are as obvious as the ones this young man displayed that day, but some of the more subtle signs (such as increased isolation, dramatic changes in appearance, and feelings or thoughts of not belonging) may be a lot harder to identify during a pandemic in which we are all more isolated from one another and wearing masks. In the absence of being able to observe these signs, we may need to be much more explicit and intentional in talking about suicide.
Thankfully, September marks National Suicide Prevention Awareness month, and, as this month ends, it is a perfect time to check in on each other as we assess for safety.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to keep the conversation on the right track.
- Be direct. If you suspect someone may have some suicidal thoughts, ask, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” This ensures there is no misunderstanding as you communicate.
- Avoid lecturing or criticisms. Saying things like “That’s a stupid thought,” or dismissing suicidal thoughts as ways to “get attention” may prevent people from sharing openly. Use the conversation to gather information, develop parameters for safety, and refer to professional supports. If you are unsure of what to say, call a suicide support line together.
- Don’t promise to keep anything a secret. If someone is in danger of harming themselves or someone else, steps need to be taken to ensure they are safe, which often includes involving supportive others (such as family members, friends, doctors, pastors, and crisis counselors).
- Continue following up. This may not be a one-time conversation but one that evolves with your relationship.
While these conversations may at times feel unnerving, they can be vital in caring for one another. If you want more training, find a QPR, ASIST or Mental Health First Aid training in your area or try hosting one at your church. You may never know what conversations you may encounter with each bridge you cross.
Jon-Erik (J.E.) lives in Goshen, IN where he works as a licensed clinical social worker. While previously serving as a youth pastor, he learned of the strong need to provide churches and church leaders with access to mental health resources. Some of his favorite people in the world have experienced mental illness, and he views their presence in our church communities as a true gift. Integrating his interest in spoken word poetry, he discusses subjects such as trauma-informed care, anxiety and depression, and adolescent mental health. J.E. serves as a field associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. He is a member of Waterford Mennonite Church, where his wife, Katie, serves on the pastoral team.