“There’s a lot to live for, even if maybe you can’t see it right now. Please don’t go yet!”
These heartfelt words are from a teen reaching out online to try to stop another teen from committing suicide. This article is about what young people need to know if someone sounds as if life is not worth living. This success story is particularly poignant when we think of all the young lives that might have been saved if only other kids had known what to say and how to get help. This story is the opposite of cyber-bullying.
We encourage you to discuss this story and guidelines with any teens who are using the Internet on their own. The very moving on-line conversation in the last section of this article shows the challenges of being in this kind of situation and why adult help is so important.
We learned of this story when a Kidpower parent told us her teen daughter came to her and said, “I need help!” We have permission from both this mother and her daughter to share the story – and, except changing for the names and leaving out a few details to protect privacy, everything written here is true.
Our Kidpower teen, “Laura”, had already gotten permission from her mom to join an online social networking site. While she was ‘chatting’ with another girl, “Susan”, about their mutual interests, Susan suddenly started writing despairing comments about life not being worth living and implying that she was planning to kill herself.
Laura first tried to offer Susan support by saying that she thought Susan’s life was valuable and urging her not to give up hope. When Susan continued to sound despondent, Laura recognized that this was an emergency and asked her mother for help as soon as she came home from work.
With her mother’s guidance, Laura wrote that feeling like this was not safe and encouraged Susan to find an adult she trusted to talk with. When Susan could not come up with a name of someone she could contact, Laura and her mother looked up the Suicide Prevention hotline.
Laura wrote that she was a kid who could not provide counseling herself and asked Susan to call this hotline right away! She disengaged from the conversation by saying that her mother had told her to get offline and do her homework – but that she would be logging in to find out how things went.
The next day, Susan wrote to Laura that she had talked to the counselor on the hotline for four hours. She didn’t have any solutions that she thought would work for her yet, but at least she is now on a path for getting the kind of help she needs.
It was so much better that a trained adult had this four-hour conversation with Susan than for Laura to try to provide this kind of counseling. As Lynn Brown, Ph.D., and co-director of our Kidpower UK Centre, wrote after hearing this story, “In my work as a psychiatrist for teenagers, I’ve seen several teens becoming low and suicidal themselves due in part to the burden of attempting to support a friend in this situation alone. It could make a real difference if teens and parents were able to give this sort of a response when teens share their suicidal thoughts online, or in any other medium.”
What Young People Need to Know
We strongly recommend that all adults tell preteens and teens that you want to know if they ever feel in despair or know someone who sounds hopeless because this could be an emergency.
Whether this happens in person or online, if another kid sounds or acts as if life is not worth living, here’s what to do.
- Pay Attention. Take action if someone makes despairing comments, such as, “My life is over. I can’t face living anymore. I feel like killing myself.” Don’t ignore the problem by doing nothing or brush it off by saying, “It’ll be okay.”
- Get Adult Help. Ask for help from an adult you trust as soon as possible. You do not need to let the other kid know you are doing this if you think it will cause a problem. If the adult knows who this is, preventative action can usually be taken without giving your name. But speaking up is important, even if this kid will be angry or upset. Remember to Put Safety First, ahead of uncomfortable feelings like embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. If you think an emergency is about to happen right away, call 9-1-1.If this is happening online with someone you don’t really know, you still need adult help. Hearing about deep despair is hard for people of any age. Even though you know a lot, it is very important not to try to handle this problem by yourself.
- Communicate caring. Let the other kid know you care by giving simple supportive comments such as, “You are important. I care about what happens to you. Even if you don’t feel like it right now, there are people who love you. Your life is valuable.”
- Don’t get caught up in trying to change this person’s feelings. Many people have occasional temporary thoughts like, “This is so embarrassing or awful. I wish I wasn’t here.” However, having constant suicidal thoughts or starting to make a plan to do something destructive to yourself or others is dangerous. People who feel strongly that they don’t want to be here need the help of an adult with skills and experience, not of a teenager, no matter how compassionate.
- Set boundaries. Say that you are not a counselor – you are another kid or another teenager. If this happens on-line with someone you don’t know otherwise, you can also say that you are not part of each other’s real-world lives. You can encourage someone to make a plan for getting adult help but you cannot provide counseling yourself.
- Redirect to professional help. People who feel suicidal deserve safe places where they can talk about their feelings and receive experienced guidance to find safe options for coping with hopelessness, pain, anxiety, depression, and despair. You can say that, even if someone has tried talking to adults or getting counseling before, it is worth continuing to try instead of giving up. Ask for the name of an adult that this person trusts. Look up Suicide Prevention Hotlines on the Internet and give this person the phone number. Say or write, “Please call them right away!”
- Disengage. Unless you have had professional training and a network of support, spending a long time communicating with another person about suicidal thoughts is unhealthy for both of you. If you are with this person, go together to adult help rather than continuing to talk. If this person won’t go or if this is someone you are communicating with online, make up an excuse to leave so that you can get help yourself.
- Check In. Before you end the conversation, ask for a time to check back in so that this person knows that you care about what happens. Your goal is not to keep talking about these problems but to make sure as best you can that this person is now getting professional help.
The Online Conversation
The following moving excerpts from the online conversation between “Laura” and “Susan” provide a vivid example of how a conversation like this might go – and why adult help is so important.
Of course, we don’t know for sure of course who the person that our Kidpower teen was “chatting” with really was but our best guess is that this was a pretty authentic situation. Some details have been omitted to protect privacy.
At first Susan and Laura were “chatting” about the special interests of their online group but then Susan wrote, “I might not be alive soon.”
Laura: “Why? You can tell me, whatever it is.”
Susan: “I feel like killing myself.”
Laura: “Don’t do that. You might not feel like it right now, but your life is valuable.
Susan: “I’ve attempted before.”
Laura: “I haven’t met you but I believe you are a good person and I, for one, don’t want to see you go. I know I don’t know anything about you or what makes you feel this way, but I want to help if I can. And if I can’t, there are other people who can. There’s a lot to live for, even if maybe you can’t see it right now. Please don’t go yet.
Laura: “’Why’ to which part in particular?”
Susan: “’Please don’t go yet.’”
Laura: “Because there are things to live for, and I believe there are people who love you, even if you don’t think they do. And because I think every person on this earth, no matter where they’re from, what they’ve done, what they believe, deserves to live. Not only to live, but be happy. Every one piece of life, no matter how large or small, is valuable, and I don’t want to see it suffer. There is a way to be happy, somewhere. It will be hard, but I believe it’s there, and that you can want to keep living again. It’s there and you can find it, and I don’t want to know of even one more person who hurts so much that they don’t want to live any more. I don’t want you to go because I believe there is more for you, and you have the right, and I believe the duty to yourself, to find it.”
Susan: “It’s not worth it.”
Laura: “Yes, yes it is. It is worth it. I know you can’t see how, but there is light and beauty and joy in the world, even if you don’t know where it is yet, it’s there. It is worth it. You are worth it. I know it seems hard, and it will be, but it will be easier if you can find someone to help you with whatever’s hurting you so you can heal, and I promise it will be worth it.”
Susan: “No it’s not.”
Laura: “Maybe not right now, and maybe not yet, but it can get better. I want you to believe that. Every night, or every morning, or something, I want you to say to yourself that it will get better, and I want you to notice who and what makes you happy, even in a small way, and I want you to do those things. Find what can make you happy, even in the smallest ways, and that will help. If you want to tell me more, if you need someone to talk to, if you ever just need to vent, I will be here, and if that helps in any way, if just knowing there is someone out there who wants you to be okay, it will get better. There is hope for everyone, even if you can’t see it, and I want you to believe that. Even if you ignore everything else I tell you and even if you never talk to me again, I want you to remember that there is hope. Sometimes it hides, some times it’s hard to find, but it’s there and it will always be there, and if you believe that, if you truly believe it, I think you will be able to make things get better.”
At this point, Laura’s mother came home, and she asked for help. Her mother stood next to her and coached her in how encourage Susan to make a concrete plan to get adult help and in how to disengage from the conversation while being as supportive as possible.
Laura: “I want to help you, but the truth is there really isn’t much I can do. I know you can be happy again, and there is a way to do it, but it requires real people, people who can speak to you in person. I want to help you make a plan. I want you to find a suicide hotline in your state, or your city. Whichever is better. I want you to find one and remember it. I also want you to identify someone, an adult over the age of 21 ideally, but definitely an adult, that you can trust and talk to.”
Susan: “It’s not that easy.”
Laura: “No, it’s not easy, but it’s important. Can you name one adult that is trustworthy? You don’t have to be specific, you can just say their relationship to you (like mother, uncle, friend), but I want you to tell me.”
Susan: “Rebecca” (not the actual name).
Laura: “FANTASTIC!!! How can you reach her? Phone? Email? Text?”
Susan “I can’t. She can’t give me her information.”
Laura: “It’s great that you thought of someone, but can you think of someone trustworthy who you *can* contact?”
Laura: “Okay, here’s the number for the suicide hotline. They have skills and resources that I don’t have, and you deserve help. PLEASE call them.” With her mother’s help, Laura found the number on this website: http://www.suicidehotlines.com/
Laura: “Because your life is worth saving and they will be able to help.”
Susan: “No. It’s not.”
Laura: “Yes it is. You are a great person, you will be a great friend to many people. Now, my mom says I need to go offline to work on my school work.” (So that Laura wouldn’t have to lie, her mother actually told her to sign off.)
“So I won’t be here, but I want you to call that number. I will sign in tomorrow and I want to see a message from you. I want you to tell me what they told you, what their voice sounded like, how long you talked. There are people there who can help you, you are worth saving, and they can save you. I want you to call them and talk to them and tell me what they say. When I log in tomorrow, I want to see that message from you. I need you to do it. I have to go now, but I need you to call them.”
The next day, Susan wrote that she’d called and talked to a counselor for four hours. Her struggle is far from over but Laura’s caring intervention, with her mother’s anonymous guidance, might well have saved a life!
One Last Thought About Counseling
In their drive for independence, teens and young adults often want to handle problems without others taking over for them. Notice how Laura’s mother did NOT take over – she provided guidance and coaching in how to handle a tough problem, including making it easier for Susan to find professional help, not to provide counseling herself.
Point out to teens that there are lots of things that adults don’t know how to do because we haven’t had the right kind of training and experience. Most adults don’t know how to fix cavities in teeth because we are not trained as dentists. Most of us don’t know how to fly an airplane, build a house, or lots of other things. Watching someone else do many jobs is not the same as getting training and practice. Counseling is not just “talking” – it requires a number of skills that are learned though time and practice under the guidance of people who know what they are doing.
And, just because counseling didn’t work the first or the tenth time, doesn’t mean it will never work. Some difficult medical problems can be more complicated to fix and require many attempts with different resources – the same is true for mental health challenges such as feeling like life is not worth living. As “Laura” wrote, “There is hope for everyone, even if you can’t see it … Sometimes it hides, sometimes it’s hard to find, but it’s there and it will always be there, and if you believe that, if you truly believe it, I think you will be able to make things get better.”
Susan’s struggle is far from over but Laura’s caring intervention, with her mother’s anonymous guidance, might well have saved a life!
Protecting Kids From Suicidal Thoughts