Sometimes brains do terrible things. One of the worst of those things is the suicidal preoccupation that can, eventually, lead to suicide itself.
Over the years I have done a lot of thinking about suicide and suicidal preoccupation.
One aspect of thoughts of suicide is the data about what happens when someone tries to kill him or herself and is not successful.
A study of people who survived after jumping off the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco (almost always fatal) has some helpful insights.
Immediately after jumping, people realized that they had made a terrible mistake. Even though, up until then, they could not think of anything other than suicide (as though their brains were showing them only one path out of their misery), after they jumped they realized that suicide was not the solution to their problems.
When these people were followed up with years later almost none of them had had a recurrence of suicidal preoccupation.
It is almost as if their brains had activated some hidden self-destruct program, and when that failed, they were able to turn to the task of resolving their challenges in other ways.
What to do if you are having thoughts of suicide?
This is a quote from a website that I have sometimes found helpful…
Start by considering this statement:
Suicide is not chosen; it happens
when pain exceeds
resources for coping with pain.
That’s all it’s about. You are not a bad person, or crazy, or weak, or flawed, because you feel suicidal. It doesn’t even mean that you really want to die – it only means that you have more pain than you can cope with right now. If I start piling weights on your shoulders, you will eventually collapse if I add enough weights… no matter how much you want to remain standing. Willpower has nothing to do with it. Of course you would cheer yourself up, if you could.
Don’t accept it if someone tells you, “That’s not enough to be suicidal about.” There are many kinds of pain that may lead to suicide. Whether or not the pain is bearable may differ from person to person. What might be bearable to someone else, may not be bearable to you. The point at which the pain becomes unbearable depends on what kinds of coping resources you have. Individuals vary greatly in their capacity to withstand pain.
When pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. Suicide is neither wrong nor right; it is not a defect of character; it is morally neutral. It is simply an imbalance of pain versus coping resources.
You can survive suicidal feelings if you do either of two things: (1) find a way to reduce your pain, or (2) find a way to increase your coping resources. Both are possible.
I am not entirely sure that I agree with what this author wrote… in part because of the assumption that suicidal thoughts are somehow the inevitable consequence of unbearable pain… although it can seem like that when one is struggling with them, in my view while these thoughts exist as a potential somewhere in all of our minds, for most of us the psychological barriers to thinking about them are strong enough that we never become immersed in them. In some people they do get activated (having been exposed to others who committed suicide can lower the barriers enough to lead people to start having suicidal thoughts, just as an example of what can lead to overcoming those barriers). Once activated they can become more and more present and insistent. They become a habitual way of responding to feelings of overwhelming stress. Almost like an addiction.
Another resource for wrestling with suicidal preoccupations is a book written by someone who struggled with these dangerous thoughts for years.
The book is called How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention and it is written by Susan Blauner.
As several reviewers note, it is not a brilliantly written book, but it does contain some hard-won insights about suicidal preoccupation that may be useful.
According to Blauner, suicide begins as a thought, driven by negative feelings, those negative feelings can include feelings of anger, guilt, loneliness, and desperation. It is important, however, to separate those feelings from thoughts of suicide.
The dangerous thoughts about suicide can become addictive – compelling fantasies can develop about one’s death and funeral. Or our brain can try to shut down any thought of alternatives (creating new barriers to thinking hopeful thoughts, to replace the barriers to thinking about suicide that used to exist). This is where the idea of a conflict comes in. Because there is always somewhere inside oneself a part that doesn’t want to die, struggling to extricate itself from the suicidal preoccupation.
The most useful part of the book (for most people) is the “Tips of the Trade,” this is a list of 25 different ideas, strategies, and plans that people with suicidal thoughts can use to help avoid harming themselves.
One of the most useful of these ideas is the “Crisis Plan.”
The plan is based on the work that she did with her therapist to help her not become trapped in her suicidal thoughts.
It starts with “Take a deep breath,” and goes on to prayer or spiritual reflection, some activities, exercise, and phone calls to family, friends, and professionals.
Again, there isn’t anything brilliant about what she describes… but it does work… and can save lives.
Now, let me take you back to the page about suicide that I quoted from at the top of this article, at the bottom of that page you will find many more helpful ideas and resources… And you, or your loved one, deserve all the help you can get.