By Carrie Jones, LCSW, Director of Counseling,
Community Center Shanghai
The recent surge in Covid cases and resulting quarantines and lockdowns has caused a broad range of emotions in all of us – anxiety, uncertainty, frustration, fear, and lack of control, just to name a few. Based on our personalities, circumstances, past experiences, and other factors, we each have varying levels of ability to tolerate disturbance and distress. Some may experience the current situation as mildly irritating or annoying while others may find it overwhelmingly upsetting. For some individuals, there are times when their ability to cope feels completely overwhelmed and they feel hopeless, leading to thoughts of suicide. Those who have experienced this are not alone and do not need to suffer in silence.
Talking about suicide is not a topic that many of us are comfortable with. It may spark painful feelings inside of us based on our current or past experiences or perhaps we worry that mentioning suicide will trigger someone else. However, as scary and uncomfortable as it may be, it is vital that we do have conversations about this topic. In fact, much research has shown that asking a person if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts will NOT plant such thoughts in their head; rather, it often is a welcomed relief to be able to express these thoughts and get support.
Understandably though, even if we know that these are discussions we should have, we often feel ill-equipped and uncertain how to start such conversations as well as how to respond if someone confides in us that they have had thoughts of suicide. Here is some guidance on how to address this topic, whether it is voicing that you are struggling or responding to someone else who is struggling.
If you feel suicidal…
Be open and real and reach out and seek support. Your life is precious and valuable and you are not alone. You can speak to a loved one you trust or seek out a mental health professional. Do not be afraid to be honest about the thoughts and feelings you are having. Many people worry if they express thoughts of suicide, they will be considered melodramatic or attention seeking and will burden others. Know that your feelings are valid, you are worthy of whatever support you need, and there are people who want to help you.
If someone confides in you that he/she has thoughts of suicide…
It can feel overwhelming if someone tells you he/she feels suicidal and you may not be sure how to respond. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we respond in ways that are not helpful or healthy. Here are some common responses people tend to give, along with why the response may not be helpful, and what might be better to say:
“I understand/I know how you feel.”
You don’t. We can never know exactly how someone feels and to insinuate you do is frustrating.
“I may never completely understand how you feel, but I am listening and care. Tell me more about it.”
“Suicide is selfish.”
It can be tempting to think that an individual who talks about taking their life is thinking only of themself, but actually many honestly (though mistakenly) believe that the world would be better off without them and that they are a burden to others.”
“You are not a burden; you are carrying burdens.”
“Think about how I/your family/friends would feel if you died.”
These statements focus on you/others, when it should be on the individual who is struggling.
“I’m here for you; you are not alone. Let’s find the help you need together.”
“Your life isn’t that bad. Other people have it way worse.”
It is not helpful to belittle an individual’s feelings or to compare suffering. There is no contest to determine who “deserves” to be struggling.
“Your feelings are valid. I acknowledge your pain and am sad you are hurting. What can I do to help?”
“You have such a good life. How can you be suicidal? You should be grateful for all you have.”
This invalidates an individual’s experience. Thoughts of suicide occur when someone feels overwhelmed beyond their coping abilities, hopeless, and in unbearable pain. This can happen even in the midst of financial affluence, opportunities, and “blessings.” It is very possible to feel grateful but to still hurt.
“I’m glad you told me. I’m here to listen with no judgement.”
Other Steps to Consider
Besides trying to respond with care and compassion, here are a few other practical steps you might consider. Please note though that the feasibility of some options may vary depending on lockdown circumstances.
• Encourage the individual to see a therapist as soon as possible. Help identify options, schedule, and accompany him/her to the appointment if it makes it a bit easier. Even during the lockdown, many mental health therapists are available online. CCS Counseling is offering one free session to anyone in lockdown and also has a team of counselors available in general. To learn more, WeChat: CCS-Counseling.
If the individual is in immediate danger of hurting himself, if possible, take him/her to an emergency room at a medical facility as soon as possible. The Shanghai Mental Health Center (www.smhc.org.cn, 64387250) may be an option.
• Consider arranging a rotation of friends to stay with the individual until he/she is stabilized and/or arrangements can be made for him/her to fly home or to a place where he/she can be admitted to a hospital or residential treatment program.
• Share information about Lifeline China (400 821 1215, WeChat ID: LifelineConnect). Lifeline provides free, confidential, anonymous listening support 365 days a year, 10am – 10pm and can be a tremendously valuable resource to help individuals feel less alone and more supported in rough moments. During lockdown, Lifeline is not available for phone service, but is still operating through live chat. Lifeline also offers valuable trainings and workshops throughout the year to help community members learn how to recognize the warning signs and know how to respond if concerned about the mental health of someone. You can learn more at www.lifeline-shanghai.com.
Finally, take good care of yourself too! It can feel very heavy and distressing when someone expresses thoughts of suicide. Do not try to manage the situation entirely on your own. Make sure you reach out to others for help and that you have the chance to talk through the feelings you experience. If you and/or the individual who is struggling are minors, reach out to a trusted adult (parent, school counselor, etc) immediately.
There is no question that we are living through tough times. No matter how dark things may feel right now though, there is hope.