As R U OK Day and World Suicide Prevention Day rolled past, much was stirred in me around suicide. I have worked with many suicidal people over the years and have brushed up against the looming spectre of it in my own family more than once. I have come closer than I would ever like to come again to losing someone I love dearly to suicide, and I have often been a witness to the aftermath of suicide, as families grapple with the tragedy that is left in its wake. How things end in suicide for people is nuanced and complex, but amidst the complexity lie two simple truths that I work at respecting in my life and work.
- Panic, distress and the emotion-charged pleas of others are the enemy of suicidal people. Hope lies in in calm, connection and presence.
- It is a myth that we can stop someone from suiciding and when we imagine that we can, we intensify the problem. Hope lies in the paradox of surrender.
Panic kills connection and connection is medicine.
Suicidality’s extraordinary capacity to induce panic presents the greatest challenge to supporting suicidal people. As the ultimate decision that cannot be undone, the tragedy that cannot be woken up from, it strikes terror into the hearts of families. Life for families with a suicidal member is lived in the shadow of a potential looming disaster. The volume on the threat goes up and down, depending on many factors, sliding between a subtle gnawing disquiet and the full-blown panic that is akin to an emotional air raid siren, so it is little wonder that families struggle to stay calm.
Clinicians are also human and subject to panic. Like families, they can easily be spooked into unhelpful, over-responsible behaviour grounded in coercion, control and imposing their own agenda, inadvertently stripping clients of dignity, privacy, power, choice and personal responsibility, all of which require restoring. For both families and clinicians, panic interferes with the capacity to listen deeply, to sit quietly with someone and just be together in the despair, to allow long stretches of silence for the person to rest in, to engage in something fun and light together, to be completely present to their suffering and love them there exactly as they are, without trying to make them different. When we calm down this medicine becomes accessible and can bring light to an otherwise dark night of the soul.
The myth that we can stop people from suiciding gets in the way of supporting them. In the paradox of surrender lies the greatest hope.
The belief that we can stop people suiciding is a dangerous myth that is devastating to those families who have already lost someone to suicide, leaving them plagued with questions about whether they could have done more. The myth is little more than an illusion that we enter into in our panic that essentially involves playing God and renders us over-responsible for another person’s life, a type of madness that our mental health system encourages, charging clinicians and sometimes families with the impossible task of keeping people alive who may have extremely valid reasons for wanting to end unbearable suffering, and are determined to do so.
I am guided by the knowledge that wherever there is over-responsibility, under-responsibility is its counterpoint. In suicidality this shows up as an even further slump into hopelessness, collapse and despair. This knowledge steers me away from the impulse to impose my own choices on another’s life. Instead I try to step into humility, to right-size myself and bow down to the many powerful forces at play when someone seeks so desperately for relief that they long to die. The great paradox of supporting a suicidal person is that when we can deeply accept that it isn’t our choice and it is theirs, when we stop seizing control and playing God and instead surrender to the mystery and uncertainty of life, a sense of ownership and responsibility for their own life may be restored in the suicidal person.
* If you are battling with thoughts of suicide and feel like there is no one you can turn to, call a crisis support line. They’re available 24/7 to listen and offer help.
About Anna Lloyd
Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private and a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Sydney’s Inner West, working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work, Anna is passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to recovery and wellness. Specialised in Addiction Recovery/Addictive Family Systems, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work. She is strongly committed to trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, and values warm, holistic, body-inclusive, life-affirming therapy grounded in mindfulness, practical wisdom, and the science of relationship systems and the brain.