Families

Family members ask us how they should treat a loved one who’s had a suicide attempt. We’ve started compiling advice here, and your thoughts are welcome. Each person’s advice begins in bold.

Another resource is this guide, “Now what do we do?” by public speaker and attempt survivor Heidi Bryan. Otherwise, there are very few resources. There’s this and this. And here’s the first support group we’ve come across for families and friends of attempt survivors, based on Bryan’s work.

My mum cried and my dad screamed at me, telling me I should be put into a mental institute. This exactly isn’t something to say to someone suffering from self-harm. If you want to help someone who self-harms, sit them down over a cup of coffee or their favourite type of cake or something you know they’ll feel comfortable with. Tell them you love them and you want to help. Don’t try and force them to talk, but let them know you’re there for them and there are MANY other ways to let the pain out.

I think the worst part is seeing how scared everyone is to be around you. Some of my best friends treated me exactly the same as they always had. I really needed that. They expressed love, and asked questions, which I was happy to answer. They visited me in the hospital, and through their actions I realized that I was really loved. We packed my hospital room with people, and the day was filled with laughter. Walking in, a stranger probably wouldn’t know why I was there. I needed that day to give me motivation to get better. I needed it so bad.

Knowing people are there, that they care, that they want you around, is really important. But trapping you, pestering you to say things you don’t want to (e.g. how are you feeling, why did you cut yourself) has the opposite effect, and just makes you get used to lying to them. … Being distracted is quite effective, not being left alone but not forced to interact. Just one more meal, just a movie can be really good at shifting moods.

I know that with my attempt, I didn’t appreciate people telling me things they normally wouldn’t have. Like saying “I love you” constantly, when normally that wouldn’t have been brought up at all. It made me feel like they only loved me because I attempted. I also didn’t enjoy all the attention I got. I guess, in a way, I would have preferred some things to remain normal, some things to get better and maybe some conversation about what I had done. Not in a “making me feel guilty” way, or making me feel like a child. Just understanding. I know that I wouldn’t like to be told I’m stupid, that I should have thought of my family. I wouldn’t like to have all the bad things I’ve done brought up. I guess all I can say, is treat me the way you would like to be treated. Be kind, normal and understanding. That’s what would have helped me.

I think the approach that worked well for me was just my family showing that they were thankful I was alive and that they were there for me. I’ll never forget when I came home from the hospital, my dad had completely cleaned and organized my room for me. And my parents bought me Oreos and peanut butter ice cream (my favorite snacks). They were good at just doing these little things that showed they wanted to help me transition back into my “normal” life. Whenever the hospital releases you, it’s such a jolt. This place completely sheltered you from your reality and then overnight you’re back to the real world. I think it’s important for families to understand this transition is a really delicate time.
And when it comes to talking about what happened, you can’t force the conversation. But at the same time it does need to be addressed. I think for the days following the attempt, simple words like “I love you,” “I’m here for you if you need to talk,” “Are you okay?” can hold so much more power than people realize. My mom and I established some safe words. Some days she could tell I wasn’t okay and we could talk about it. I’d open up and things would be fine. Other days I’d have to look at her and just say, “I’m not okay and I can’t talk about it.” She knew those were the times she needed to step back and let me be. And it’s so important to be patient. Here I am almost 5 years later, and there are certain things my parents are just now hearing for the first time.

After the attempt, when my children and I came to live with my parents, I was afraid they would treat me like they were scared to leave me alone. They were at first, and I was okay with reassuring them and checking in to make sure that they felt secure that I was going to be okay. As the days and weeks passed, they began to check in on me less and less. I was still diligent about letting them know where I was and when I would be back. My parents had a few questions, and I let them know there wasn’t much of anything that was off limits, although I knew my parents wouldn’t want to know details about the attempt, nor did they want to know how sad I have been, and they definitely did not want to see the wounds and bruises.

My mother kept blaming herself. She felt like she should have known that I was deeply depressed, but I told her that I purposely avoided seeing close friends and family because not only was I not feeling up to being social much, but when I was around people, it was draining to pretend I was okay. And if she had managed to see beyond my act, I would have just denied it was true, and if she had insisted I would have just gotten angry at her. I wanted her to understand there was truly nothing she could have done.

My older daughter is 16 and was told what happened. I spoke to her on the phone within the hour of fully waking up in the ICU. I told her that I love her very much and that I know she must be confused, angry and sad, but that I was going to be okay. This was a scary thing that happened, but it was only going to lead to me getting better. I assured her I was still the same Mommy that had always taken good care of her, and I would make sure I would do a better job of taking care of myself from that day on. She didn’t want to talk more after that, and that was okay. I bought books about survivors of suicide and read them to understand more about how the people around me would be feeling. And I told my older daughter therapy was there for her when she was ready.

Most important, I am working to show her that what I have is an illness, not unlike the cancer that has also run in our family. It is not something to be ashamed of, as long as I am getting treatment that works for me. It is the secrecy and stigma that kept me from asking for help before, and I do not want my children to feel the same shame and hopelessness I did if someday they inherit this brain condition from me.

I met my boyfriend after my attempt. I told him on our third date. He is a successful professional who is very ‘normal’ and ‘together,’ and I felt for sure he would walk away, but he didn’t. He only said that he admired me for being able to come back from something like that. I share with him my thoughts about being open with people about my condition, and he is very supportive. When I start to feel like I have to tell him about some of the dark thoughts I used to have, about not being able to be around guns or sharp knives, and my feeling that I wouldn’t live to be an old woman, he only tells me that he trusts me and knows how hard I am working to get better, and changes the subject to happier things like our future. I never thought I would find someone to love me. Especially not after what I did!

To sum up what I have come to understand about what to convey to loved ones, reassure them that you are okay (make sure you are doing everything you can to BE okay) and if you are not okay, tell them, and let them know you will tell them if you need help. Point them in the right direction in terms of resources to get help for you (my family has a list of websites and my doctor’s and therapist’s numbers and email addresses). Most important, let them know it is okay to talk about it. That is the ONLY thing we can do to make this world better for people like us. The more people who talk about it, the less people who will harm themselves.

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9 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. My spouse (now ex) made it very clear that my hospitalization was an inconvenience to him. He was both overt and subtle in this – both during and after the hospitalization; and it made my recovery very difficult until I was finally able to accept that his abuse was a huge part of why I had become depressed/suicidal in the first place and that I couldn’t recover and save a marriage at the same time. Five months later, when he threatened to cut me off from counseling, I knew I had to get out of there; and did so able to flee with my Daughter, but not able to get my Sons (whom he had already started to alienate me from by referring to me as a psycho, becoming trash, scum of the earth, Mom). My advice to family/friends … pay close attention to what is happening to your loved one in the months after their attempt. Out of hospital is not out of woods. You may see clues emerge of an abusive relationship that precipitated the attempt; and the ability of the abuser to use the suicide attempt to berate is multiplied by the stigma one is coping with in society.

    Reply

    • I had a very similar situation with my boyfriend, and my entire family. I was diagnosed with Bipolar in 1989 and my family recently claim I am faking it. They drove me over the edge and treat me like I succeed at my suicide attempt….
      It has been 10 months and I have accepted the fact my “family ” is no longer a part of my life. I find it so hard to accept that…
      Thanks for reading this…. Feedback is welcome…
      Erika

      Reply

      • Hi Erika,

        I just saw your reply. I am sorry so many months have transpired since. I hope you are thriving in your recovery. And, I hope that you have found a support group to help you continue to strengthen your resolve to live life fully alive; even when others treat you as though your suicide attempt ended your life. There is a Q,P,R suicide prevention training being offered in many places across the nation. There would be people at such a meeting who understand some of what we have been through and can help you find other support resources. You have made it through some very difficult circumstances and made some very difficult choices. I admire your courage and wish you the best!
        Debra

  2. You hear a lot of advice and thoughts about why people commit suicide. Some say the people in pain are selfish in that they’re only thinking of themselves and not realizing the impacts they are placing on their families. While there is some element of truth to this claim, it should be realized that people in pain have reached the end of options without hope, and just want their life to end. So it does little good to pass neither judgment on those that are disheartened nor say: “What were you thinking in attempting suicide?” Instead show genuine concern and simply ask: ”Why?” and say: “I care” and listen. Listen to them without disrupting their words or chain of thought, and then quietly meet with a mental health professional to discuss the situation. Mental health professionals may then offer you options such as treatment for your loved one, provide you materials to read on the subject, and offer you an objective empathetic viewpoint especially if you sense anger is there. It should be recognized that suicide is often viewed as the end to despair, broken communications, and who is right or wrong doesn’t matter anymore.

    Reply

  3. I am 30 with two children and a loving husband. I have a sister 33 recently divorced (no kids) and a brother 36 married with two kids of his own. My mom and dad are still married. They are great parents and grandparents. We all love them and so does their grandchildren.

    This is the second time my mom has attempted suicide. She’s in the hospital right now. She has had depression and anxiety since I was a child, but only now as an adult I can remember instances and realize “oh that’s why”. We were all loved. I don’t really know how to approach this second attempt. Last time was worse (if that is even possible) she was in a coma for 5 days and we were told she might not survive. This time she was caught sooner and is just being sedated till her system is clear. I guess I am just looking for advice on what to do now. The last time we all approached her with love and that we were there for her but did not push her to discuss “IT”. We talk about how she is feeling, her depression and anxiety, but not about the actual attempt.

    An idea I had was to share this web site with her and maybe encourage her to write her own experience (she does like to write in a journal) that she could then share with us so we can understand better. She doesn’t have to post it publically but it might get her feelings out that she is holding inside (or trying to protect us from).

    Any thoughts would be helpful.

    Reply

    • Hi Danielle,
      I just saw your reply to a comment I made on another page concerning my own struggles and ongoing thoughts of suicide. I hope my reply isn’t too late to be of some benefit. As for what you (and other family members) can do to help your mom, I guess I would say that your mom is probably the only one who can really answer that question. It’s my opinion that treatment must be very individualized and there’s no way of knowing where to begin without asking the individual what would be helpful. Maybe ask in terms of “If I could wave a magic wand and make life worth living, what would that look like? What would be different?” And ask for some concrete examples. Just a thought – perhaps, just place to start…
      Wishing you and your family all the best. Hugs, Sarah.

      Reply

    • It is my thinking that People who suffer mental illness and/or distress need to be taught self-management.
      I personally think that when we rely on our “feelings” as a way of coping with life, we judge our feelings on how we felt in the past, or present etc.
      Feelings cannot always be changed. But it is possible to change our thought
      processes. For example …to replace one negative thought is a good starting point.
      Also a person who has made an attempt on their own life might think that this is a huge failure : for themselves and for anyone around them.
      It is for me of great importance to take one day at a time. To not reflect too much
      on what is in the past or on what may occur in the future – so One Day At A Time – little baby steps.
      I can also come from the point of view of a daughter who’s mother suffers with anxiety and panic. She coped very well with it for many years. Not so well in the past three decades or so when she became very reliant on the people around her.
      Mother was always reading books about positive thinking however she could not always apply that to her life.
      If she been pointed in the direction of a therapist who could help her thoughts process she may have found more independance.
      Being independant and not having to rely on a network of friends and family – for myself anyway.- is very important.
      That is not to say that knowing I am loved and appreciated is not important –
      but that my confidence personally depends on me being able to do some things on my own without my family being with me all the time. Trust takes time however. Trust in oneself and trust in each other.
      Your mum can change her negative patterns of thought which led to choosing suicide as an option. There is help Out There and there are also
      some to be found on the internet regarding modern techniques used by
      mental health organisations worldwide.
      There is hope. There is always hope.
      Her psychiatric doctor may be able to point her in the direction of a good therapist.

      Once again – trusting one’s feelings and trying to explore them is not always a helpful thing – thought’s on the other hand CAN be changed with professional help – baring in mind that the person who has chosen suicide as an option – has got to want to get help to change their thought patterns.

      For yourself – trying to be what I call a “detective” can be very time consuming and ineffective. I am the “detective” in my Mother’s case and I have spent alot of time trying to work out how it got that way. But that didn’t change anything because my Mother either didn’t want professional help or was afraid to admit she had a problem. I was not the ideal person to help her either because over time I developed my own issues and also I think that the closer you are to a person – the harder it is to help them – perhaps because you are emotionally involved with that person already.

      Thought patterns can be changed! : )

      Reply

      • Hi Danielle,

        I learned from my second hospitalization that a particular event triggered an overwhelming desire to end my psychological pain. The clinical term is PTSD; and more is being understood about how trauma lays down patterns and reactions to triggers that put people into the mental-emotional states of mind of fight-flight-freeze. I absolutely would not have believed I would ever experience suicidal ideation after my first hospitalization and the treatment I had received for major depressive disorder. I was not depressed, but have struggled with anxiety all my life, and I did experience a traumatic event within hours of my suicidal behavior. I agree with Sarah that each person’s case is marked by his/her individual life experiences – as we see when two combat soldiers experience the same trauma, but only one develops PTSD. If your Mom is open to pursuing the idea of PTSD/trauma history as triggers, she might benefit from seeing one with a lot of CBT, CPT, or EMDR experiences and training. And, I am a proponent of brain scans …why risk years of roller-coaster reactions to meds – or to not having meds – that might be averted by having the benefit of the doctor’s look at the organ of the illness?

        Hope this helps.

        Debra

  4. She lost her only natural born child when he was 2 hours old. She didn’t see him. She wasn’t present at his funeral. She had a cesarean section and was out cold (1968).
    She was in hospital for 2 weeks. She had to sleep in a ward where she could hear babies crying. Maybe she saw them I am not sure. what a disappointment! How traumatic? Treatment:- Amitrytylene – Tryptysol as it was called (may be spelling errors there).
    Therapy – her church friends surrounded her with love and support. Her husband was very supportive. My grandparents all helped Mum.

    But no therapy as such.

    Then Ativan/Lorazepam at aged 48 ish. And still taking them now. She is 80.

    Love your advice and totally agree.

    but given her age – how?? How could that work?

    Churches have counsellors now – and Mum has always been a Christian.

    I am sorry – this is very personal to how things have panned out –

    But – what you have made ME see – is P.T.S.D. is most likely what Mum had/has.(80)

    Thank you

    Reply

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