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.