This article comes from friend and co-worker Emily Ostrowski. Emily is a suicide prevention counselor working with an organization that helps youth dealing with suicidal ideation. I think you’ll find what she’s offered here both helpful and moving.
In Infinite Jest, renowned author David Foster Wallace, who tragically took his own life in 2008, compares suicide to a trapped person jumping out of a burning building. Wallace writes, “Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.” He goes on to note that, “Nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
That idea of the hapless bystander unable to help or understand is one I’ve struggled with ever since volunteering as a suicide prevention counselor this past April.
For reasons of anonymity I can’t divulge the name of the organization, but I can say that I interact mainly with youths and young adults dealing with, among other things, suicidal ideation. Not surprisingly many of these young people come from less than ideal backgrounds. They aren’t being supported or accepted by parents, teachers or peers. They struggle with thoughts of guilt, inferiority, and intense isolation. Often they tell me stories of abuse or self-harm, or other secrets they only feel comfortable divulging to a faceless stranger. Many of these conversations are heartbreaking. Some are downright terrifying, and leave me feeling lost and useless.
In fact, for me, one of the most humbling and difficult aspects of being a suicide prevention counselor is accepting the limitations of what I can actually do for those that are struggling. I can’t right the wrongs of their life. I can’t make their parents pay attention to them, or erase past abuse. I can’t cure them of any mental illness, and I can’t even guarantee anything I do will stop them from killing themselves. In short, I can’t be their savior.
While these limitations are undoubtedly discouraging, knowing and accepting them has helped me to focus all my energies on the things I can do to help. I can offer practical solutions, like encouraging the youth to seek counseling and/or medical treatment and help them find providers in their area. I can also get them in contact with shelters and community centers, any place that can offer them a safe space, warm bed and real, live people waiting and wanting to help them as best they can. These options are great, and often necessary to foster improved mental and emotional health for the youth. The downside is, I can’t ever be sure they follow through with any of these referrals, either because external circumstances get in their way, or because they just are uncomfortable or unwilling to reach out in these ways.
Really then, the most crucial support I can offer, the kind I have absolute control over during the brief amount of time I speak with these young people, is that of compassion and validation. Like Wallace says, I can’t completely understand the despair they feel, but I can acknowledge their pain. I can listen, without judgement and without ever telling them what to do. I can tell them I’m sorry for all they’ve had to go through. I can tell them how strong they are, for continuing to fight, and for seeking help. It might sound trite, but if even just for a little while I can make them feel less alone, less isolated, if for even just a second they feel a sense of hope that things don’t have to always be so painful, it might nudge them off the path of suicide, back on a path towards life.
Now, I’d never be so arrogant or simplistic as to say that all suicidal people need are some kind words or someone to lean on and they’ll be saved. Nor am I suggesting that anyone who has committed suicide did so because they didn’t have loving, supportive people around them. In many cases, they did, which makes it all the more heartbreaking and difficult to comprehend. When serious mental illness is at play, no one word or action can fix everything, and no one person can be anyone else’s savior. What I do believe though, is that in our limited, human capacity, compassion without judgement is often the greatest gift we can offer those who are struggling with suicidal depression. We may not be able to understand their pain, or why they’d ever want to end their lives, but we can sympathetically acknowledge the immensity of their suffering.
After all, most people, even those who are suicidal, don’t necessarily want to die, they’re just trying to find their way out of the flames.
Emily is the Administrative Assistant at Camas Friends Church, and a postbac psychology student and research assistant preparing for graduate school. She has also been volunteering as a suicide prevention counselor since April 2013.