Never tell someone who’s suicidal that they don’t want to kill themself, at least that’s the position of the specially-trained responders at the Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, run by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.
Today’s post is a continuation of the discussion I had with Robert Griffo, Health Science Specialist and one of the expertly-trained and caring responders working at the Veterans Crisis Line national headquarters in Canandaigua, NY (which discussion can be found under this week’s Don’t Think Naked post). According to Griffo, when dealing with a veteran, or anyone, who has just confessed they’re suicidal, to say to them, “you don’t want to kill yourself” is to patronize them and risk triggering a defensive reaction likely to make them even more determined to do what they feel is best with their own life.
So I asked Griffo, what should a person do when they want to help someone else in crisis? He had a lot to share on that topic, all of which boils down to listen first, then when you do speak, treat them with respect.
The Crisis Line gets lots of calls from family members or caring friends worried about a loved one who is suffering emotionally, spiritually, even physically, struggling with demons, at the end of their rope and whom they can’t seem to connect with to help. Crisis Line Responders welcome these 3rd party callers, people who are looking to get help for someone who won’t call for themself. Take, for example, the parent whose son came back from his tour of duty and is holed up in his room 24/7, won’t talk to anybody, is drinking all the time, and has his gun. Responders will do a rescue, if they have to, but if you call with concerns over a loved one who is showing signs of serious problems, Responders will more often try to call him or her directly and talk. They’ll engage in ways that you can’t. There are things a person in crisis doesn’t want the people in their lives to know about, or they don’t think anyone can understand. That’s where the Crisis Line comes in.
Trying to get someone in crisis to open up to you is hard enough, but when you’re dealing with a member of the military, the idea of asking for help is seen as a failure. “There is a warrior culture that you need to buck through this, that you need to get through this on your own,” says Griffo. In the military, you’re trained to be the hero, trained to be the problem solver, to take pride in being the strong one. It contradicts their sense of identity to have to overcome all that and pick up the phone. As bad as their life or problems may be, they also suffer from the pressure to be the hero, from thinking, “I can’t confess that I’m weak or that I’m broken and that I need help.” This refusal to accept help extends even to how they see their family. If their family is on base, they don’t even want them to take advantage of mental health services.
Fortunately, military personnel are also trained to trust each other. “You fight for your brother,” says Griffo. For a soldier, active, reserve or retired, there exists an automatic trust with other vets. You trust others to watch your back, and you take pride in knowing they can trust you to watch theirs. The key to the Crisis Line’s success is being able to tap into this trust network. Every effort is made to establish trust. A woman caller can speak to another woman, a vet who has seen action can demand to speak only to a responder who is also a vet who has seen action. In fact, every branch of the military now promotes a sensitivity to the need for maintaining an effective suicide prevention network.
So, I asked Griffo, how do you help someone make the leap from “I can handle it on my own even though I’m falling apart,” to “I’m going to trust this line, pick up this phone, and I’m not going to be weak for doing it?” The answer, again, is be there to listen, not judge, and respect what they are experiencing.
“That’s the first thing you want to do with any caller — to empower them is to validate them. A genuinely suicidal caller, you want to honor their right to feel the way they do. It’s an option. It’s just not the healthiest option, so let’s kind of put that in a parking lot. Let’s talk about other options here.”
The raw truth is that you may not be able to stop someone from harming themselves if that is truly what they want to do, but you can respect they have the power of choice, while helping them to see there are other choices, even if they can’t identify what those other choices are at the moment.
“It’s for them to come to that through talking. Me being a good listener, me reflecting back to them what I’m hearing. Letting them come to the solution, you know, that’s what it is about. There’s coaching and guiding along the way, but it’s so important to not dismiss, because if you dismiss suicide when they say they’re suicidal, [if you say] ‘ You don’t want to be suicidal, you don’t want to kill yourself,’ that kind of a term puts up a defensive wall. And now, no matter what you say, you could be Jesus coming through the ceiling with stuff to say, they’re not going to listen, ‘cuz you dismissed them. You now have patronized them. You have put them in a place where they feel less than you. Where what I want to do is put both of us on an equal plane, [to say] ‘ Hey, I work for you. We’ll work on this together. You’re my boss. I work for you, but we need to do this together.‘”
Are you worried about someone, veteran or civilian, who you think is possibly suicidal or who is just in a downward spiral, and you’re at the end of your rope trying to help, out of ideas, worried they’re going to do something drastic? Pick up the phone for them and contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to the Veterans Crisis Line website for help by clicking on the Recommended Link to the left or typing into your search field the URL www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Even if you’re not sure whether or not things are bad enough to take action, the website has a checklist you can consult to see if reaching out is something you should consider. On the Crisis Line homepage, click on the tab Signs of Crisis to learn more.
Whether the call is for you, or by you for someone you care about, just make the call. As Rob Griffo puts it,
“You’re out of hope when you’re ready to take the last breath out of your mouth. But if you’re still breathing, if your feet hit the floor when you get out of bed, there’s hope. And to generate that and get that spark is what that hotline is about. It’s to stop people from thinking they’re hopeless in their life and to understand that, yeah, you’re in a bad place right now, let’s acknowledge that, but it’s not forever. We can help you. [The hotline is] a safe place, a place you can call as much as you need to.”
Feeling suicidal is a trip down a dead end street, but a course correction is possible, if you want it to be. Talk, text, or online chat to someone now.
Online chat www.veteranscrisisline.net