Belonging and Connection Help Prevent Suicide
I have led many QPR Suicide Prevention Trainings to various groups. QPR stands for Question, Persuade, Refer. It is a science based, practical training designed to help anyone who wants to learn how to prevent suicide. At every training, I can sense the deep, urgent desire many people feel to know what to do, to have the answer for those they love who are feeling despair.
They attentively listen to the science based research, soaking up any and all information that could help them understand what commonalities there might be in the diverse groups that are at high risk.
Learning that suicide is not about someone wanting to end their life, but instead it is about them wanting to end overwhelming pain, is often a crucial moment of understanding for those in the training. And in that moment of understanding, I see many of them find some hope of being able to help their loved one.
It is hard for any of us to understand why anyone would want to end their life. We, as humans, are made to survive, to fight to keep breathing even against great odds. And we, as humans are also made to avoid pain. We go to great lengths to minimize the risk of experiencing pain. Sometimes, someone is experiencing so much pain, and they do not know how they can stop it. Sometimes, the only option they see for ending pain is to end their life.
It might be difficult for any of us to understand why someone would want to end their life, but we can all relate to how it feels to be in pain.
Learning to recognize the warning signs that someone is in pain of this kind is an important part of prevention. Practicing asking someone if they are considering suicide is the next step, and we include that in the training. I urge people to practice asking this question with everyone. And they are often surprised at the difference it makes to say it out loud… “Are you thinking about suicide?” They find when they can say it, it creates a connection of hope where, a moment before, there was fear and despair.
In my experience, what happens next is the most complex, confronting, challenging, but also the most important part of suicide prevention. It is also where I have experienced the profound presence of God’s love. That is what calls me to keep practicing this, no matter how imperfectly.
That moment after asking someone if they are considering ending their life, that is the moment we need to practice intense listening, with no agenda.
This is extremely difficult for us. We are people who not only want to have an answer, we want to have THE answer. We want to help, and fix problems, and figure out what to do, and make sure no one is hurting. We have learned this from an early age, and we carry it through our lives and the many roles we take on.
This is when I ask people to recognize our desire to fix the problem, and then set that aside.
When someone is in deep pain, anything you say that suggests they need to do something different, or feel different, or think differently about their life – it comes across as judgement, and it increases their despair. This is not the time to suggest that they pray more, or exercise, or change their diet, or get outside more often. This is not the time to give them the self help book that changed your life.
If they tell you it hurts so much they don’t want to live, this is not the time to argue with them. A friend doing graduate work in counseling told me of studies where they measure the heartrate of someone who is upset (person A), and what happens when they talk with someone about it (person B). Person A usually has an elevated heart rate as they share their thoughts with person B. If person B tries to talk person A out of feeling the way they do, the heartrate of person B usually increases as well. Person B will feel anxious about trying to convince person A to feel better, and anxious about trying to fix the problem. As person B’s heartrate increases, so does the heartrate of person A. And the anxiety is elevated. The pain increases.
When person B listens intently, and just sits with person A without trying to fix, or convince, or argue, their heartrate tends to stay level. And the heartrate of person A tends to slow down as well. The anxiety tends to lower. The likelihood of feeling hope and accepting help increases.
How do we learn to listen to someone so intently that we can hear of someone’s pain, and be a place of such peace that they can begin to find hope again?
How can we practice being at peace when we might not know how to help someone?
What is the first thing we tend to think when we meet or see someone? It is human to look for differences, and to hold back until we find similarities. How often do we hesitate engaging in a relationship, or a conversation, because we want to know if we have something in common? Do we look the same, or go to the same school, or vote the same, or agree on issues? We might wonder how we can listen to someone’s need if we don’t have details about their life, or past, or if we don’t have special training to understand their particular situation.
I ask you to consider something.
All of us are human.
All of us desire to be loved. To belong.
And all of us have felt pain. I know each of you have. It is likely that each of you have, at times, experienced so much pain you are not sure how you are going to get through the day, or maybe even the next hour.
That is what you have in common with everyone.
So when you wonder how you will be able to just sit, and listen, and be one with someone who is hurting and not sure how they are going to be able to keep breathing – please consider that you share this human experience of wanting to belong, of needing love, and of feeling pain. You are connected in that way. Breathe deep. Let your heart beat steady. Feel with them. Listen, then listen some more. Even if they are not saying much, listen more. If you have to say something, try saying “I am here. I am with you.” Then listen some more. It is in those moments that I hear the echoes of how God is there with me in my darkest moments. If someone trusts us enough to let us sit with them in their pain, it is a moment for us to practice being Godlike. Let your love and compassion be stronger than the habit of trying to fix them.
When their anxiety lessens, and they feel hope, that is when they might let you help them get to professional care. This is another part of the suicide prevention training.
I hope all will seek that training. And I hope you will look for each opportunity to overcome despair by listening, and creating connection.
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, please seek help. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.