Deborah Khoshaba Psy.D.

Get Hardy

The Edge of Suicide

Learn how to help fight for life rather than reject it.

Posted Mar 05, 2012

"Suicide is the worst possible death on friends and family." It leaves everything unanswered and there's no closure. Suicide has an edge that other forms of death don't." Steve Fugate, NBC, Bay Area.

Steve Fugate, a 65-year-old Florida man, made walking his passion after his son committed suicide in 1999. Since then, Fugate has walked all over the United States, tallying up 30,000 miles, over the course of 12 years. "At each stop, he tells people to love life and to reject suicide."

Mr. Fugate's campaign for life touches all of us deeply. I love his message and his resilient nature. His walk was also a fight for his life, to stay hopeful despite his suffering.

But, how do we help suicidal people fight against the despair and hopelessness that make them want to reject life? We have to understand their pain and what ending their life means to them, in order to help. If we rush to tell them how wonderful life is when all they know is deep despair, we may add to their feeling that no one understands the depth of their pain. This is a risk that we don't want to take.

Most of us are afraid of opening up the topic of suicide with depressed people, because we think that if we entertain the topic we are giving them permission to take their life. We also don't want to shame and embarrass them. Even therapists often feel this, even though it's our job to bring up this difficult subject matter with our patients.

Whether you are a therapist, a friend, or a loved one of someone who may be contemplating suicide, we all have to appreciate the meaning of the suicidal act in order to understand it, so that we are not afraid to have such discussions. I open up this difficult subject matter with you today, so that you understand what suicide is really all about and how you may help a loved one who is contemplating suicide. Understanding is the best way to reach a suicidal person and help him or her to continue living.

What is Suicide?

An Attempt To Solve A Problem

Suicide is a senseless act to those who wish to live. But, death as an option to one's problems makes sense to the suicidal person. The thought of suicide occurs most often when a person feels they have run out of solutions to problems that seem inescapable, intolerably painful, and never-ending (Why People Commit Suicide). It may be a physical or mental illness that deteriorates the body or mind, as in Lou Gehrig's disease or Bipolar disorder. Or, it may result from the death or suicide of a loved one. Perhaps, it's a downward spiral from money woes and a devastating change in lifestyle. For some, public disgrace or humiliation makes it intolerable to go on living; while, for others, the intolerable condition may result from the post-traumatic stress of military combat, homicide, rape, or imprisonment.

No matter the situation that brings a person to contemplate death, there's one thing that suicidal people share in common; they cannot love life, right now. They have experienced a basic and comprehensive breakdown in their values, way of living, self-esteem, and ability to make sense of life and to give it meaning that restores their hope and the will to live.

We are hard-wired to survive, to fight in times of stress and threat, so suicide feels so wrong to us. The suicidal person has fallen to the other side of this evolutionary fight for survival. They have chosen to flee, through death.

It doesn't matter how we'd respond, or how severe the circumstances seem to us, suicidal people cannot love life or find meaning in it, in their deteriorated mental state. Nonetheless, it's important for us to know that they do not really want to die; they just want a way out from their suffering. Suicide seems like the only way out.

Suicide is a breakdown in our meaning system that leads to a profound state of negativism, pessimism, nothingness and emptiness. The will to live has become a will to die. The existentialists call this a state of nihilism. Some people fight this condition, (like Steve Fugate) but others give in to it. To better understand the differences between people here, we have to appreciate better what the act of suicide expresses.

An Assertion of Freedom

The act of suicide expresses a willful choice of death over life. As strange as it sounds, suicide is one way to reassert a sense of freedom over the limitations that people feel. Whatever has shut down their living possibilities, suicidal people  are essentially saying, "Choosing when I die is the one possibility that is still within my control."

Their choice to die, however, stems from what the existentialists call bad faith; distrusting  that one still possesses the ability to give meaning to circumstance that liberates them from their suffering. The 1999 Academy Award film, Life is Beautiful stirred our emotions and soul because it speaks to the best of human nature. Even in the most heinous, restrictive of circumstances, human beings still have the ability to exercise freedom, in giving meaningful rather than nihilistic understandings to the things that happen to them.This is the good faith approach to living and how the hero of Life is Beautiful, Guido Orifice, found a way to survive.

In a concentration camp, Guido hides his son from Nazi guards, with the hope to keep him alive. He sneaks him food and tries to humor him by convincing his son that the camp is just a game, in which the first person to get 1,000 points wins a tank.  He tells him that if he cries, complains that he wants his mother, or says that he is hungry, he will lose points, while quiet boys who hide from the camp guards earn points. Guido is aware that he and his son will most likely die; but he still has a choice as to how he will cope with this dire circumstance. He chooses life, by exercising the human capacity to create meaning in the most restrictive of situations. Life is truly beautiful; no matter how tough it becomes, we can still find something meaningful in it. This is what Steve Fugate has done by walking 30,000 miles over 12 years. We love Steve because he's a modern day Guido Orifice.

HardiCoping: A Good Faith Problem-Solving Technique

Hardy coping is an act of good faith. It's a way to find meaning that opens up perspective and understanding of stressful situations, even in the toughest of them.The comprehensive breakdown in the meaning system of suicidal people narrows their perspective and focus, so that the only way they know to solve their problems is through taking their lives. Hardiness gives them another way. It gives the suicidal person specific strategies that expands their perspective and understanding into their pain and emptiness.Through this they begin to see new ways to get beyond their problems. And, if their particular cirumstance cannot be changed, they learn how to change other features of their life that help them to regain their coping momentum and will to live, through the hardiness technique called Compensatory Self-Improvement. The hardiness approach to managing hard times is an assertion of freedom that is healthy. Through it, life can feel feel meaningful once again.

How Can You Help?

A person considering suicide needs professional help. But, you have to know that they are considering death, open up the painful topic, and get them to consider another way out of their problems than suicide, before you can get them to the professional help that they need.

Suicide and depression go hand-in-hand. The American Psychological Association has listed the behavior of a depressed person who is contemplating ending his or her life. These include:

  • Talks about committing suicide,
  • has trouble eating or sleeping,
  • exhibits drastic changes in behavior,
  • withdraws from friends or social activities,
  • loses interest in school, work or hobbies,
  • prepares for death by writing a will and making final arrangements,
  • gives away prized possessions, as attempted suicide before,
  • takes unnecessary risks,
  • has recently experienced serious losses,
  • seems preoccupied with death and dying,
  • loses interest in his or her personal appearance, and
  • increases alcohol or drug use.

If you sense, in even the slightest way, that a depressed loved one, friend, or coworker is considering taking their lives, you need to open up the topic. Believe me, they will be relieved that someone has noticed and is giving them permission to talk about these painful, lonely feelings. Even if they need drawing out, don't give up. You can start simply by letting them talk about what has happened and how they feel. This may be about the tough, debilitating nature of a person's mental or physical illness that has taken away his/her will to live. Or, it may be a military veteran who has a deep sense of meaninglessness since returning home from combat. Perhaps, it's a teenager who has been bullied, or romantically rejected, or experiences some other situation that makes him/her depressed and suicidal. Whatever the situation is, let them share what they feel.

If you can tolerate their pain, they will be more able to manage these feelings themselves. Simply be present to their pain. Remember, this does not say that you agree with suicide as a option to their problems. You may open up the subject of suicide by sharing a time when you have felt so badly that you thought about ending your life. And, if you have never felt this way, just let them know how natural it is to have these feelings and that it doesn't really mean that they wish to die. They just want a way out of their problems.

Thus, do not rush in to tell a suicidal person how wonderful life is. Let them know that they have it within them to find another way to solve their problems, to find meaning that gives them the will to live once again, as in the examples of Guido Orifice and Steve Fugate.

Where to get Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please get help from your doctor or local emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is available 24/7.

If you like my post today, please say so by selecting the Like Icon that immediately follows. I welcome your comments and reflections. Take good care of yourself and loved ones. Warm regards, Deborah.

About the Author

Deborah Khoshaba, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Training and Development for the Hardiness Institute, Inc., Irvine, California, since 1989.

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