Inside the Suicidal Person

by Susan J. Shelley

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” — Colette [1]

On a warm May evening in 1996, Jamie*, a 36-year-old divorcee with two adolescent daughters, committed suicide in her home. So distraught over the course of her life, she decided to end her misery.

She had tried calling several friends and relatives, leaving vague messages on their answer machines. But no one was home to answer her desperate calls for help.

Jamie’s wedding day was only a month away. While her fiancĂ© was at work and her daughters were spending the weekend with their father, this beautiful, vivacious woman climbed into her bathtub with her clothes on, pulled the shower curtain around her, pointed a shotgun to her head, and pulled the trigger.

After shock

I was one of the relatives Jamie had tried to contact. With others in my family, I was stunned and devastated. I drilled myself: Why hadn’t I been home when she called? Why did I miss her signs of misery? I had dismissed her moods as something temporary that would lift once she remarried. I was wrong.

Suicide is one of the most tragic and misunderstood deeds many families face. They never really know what was in the person’s heart and mind. They can’t ask questions or say goodbye. Families ask themselves, “Why couldn’t we do something in time?”

In these days it’s easy for someone to pull a trigger or inhale deadly fumes, devastating and confusing those left behind. The good news is that suicide is preventable. You can help save a person’s life if you understand the reasons people choose suicide, the warning signs, and the action to take.

Why die?

According to Jack D. Douglas and Frank Allen Jones, one of the main motivations for suicide is long-lasting depression. [2] Besides this, other reasons can push someone to take his life:

  • revenge
  • a painful life
  • loneliness, rootlessness, meaningless
  • lack of family and community support
  • recent death of a family member or friend
  • disillusionment about a relationship
  • impulse
  • loss of a job or promotion
  • receiving news of a terminal illness
  • having an eating disorder
  • retirement or onset of old age
  • being a victim of a crime, such as rape, car jacking, or robbery
  • loss of home to an act of nature
  • disillusionment of religious faith
  • failure in school or in a school activity

Early signs

A suicidal person may exhibit some or all of these early signs: [3]

  • guilt
  • fear of losing control
  • nervousness, agitation, hyperactivity
  • lethargy, hopelessness
  • loss of sleep, weight, and appetite
  • neglect of personal appearance
  • talk in general about life being useless
  • hints or bold statements about ending life
  • engaging in aggressive and risk-taking behavior
  • skipping work or school
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • giving away valued possessions

If the depressive mood suddenly seems to lift and the person becomes overly joyous, acting as if there isn’t a worry or care in the world or that all the problems have been solved, the risk of suicide is the greatest. A fatal decision has been reached.

What not to do

San Francisco Suicide Prevention says what not to do in dealing with a suicidal person. [4]

  • Don’t think the person is just talking to get attention and won’t follow through. Take every threat as real.
  • Don’t be aggressive with the person. Avoid moralizing statements like “Suicide is wrong,” “You’ll be punished for it,” or “Think about your obligations to your family and friends.” This only adds to the person’s guilt and may speed up his desire to carry through.
  • Don’t try to reassure the person too much by saying, “You’re a good person; life is worthwhile.” Suicidal people don’t feel life is meaningful or that they’re good. They might think that you don’t really understand what they’re feeling, which will only make them feel more rejected and misunderstood.

Ask candid questions

San Francisco Suicide Prevention also says you can take several steps to help someone contemplating suicide. [5]

Talk to the person about suicide itself. Don’t be afraid to discuss the topic in full. If you avoid the subject, the person may feel rejected, lonely, and deeply disturbed, thinking that no one cares.

You can speak candidly with the person and ask such questions as

  • Do you sometimes feel bad enough to think of suicide?
  • Why do you want to end your life?
  • How would you do it?
  • When would you do it?
  • Have you tried suicide before? When?
  • What happened when you tried it?

Make a verbal contract

If the person has a definite plan and lethal method, the suicide risk is high. Try to make a verbal contract — an agreement with the person to contact you before following through with his suicide plan. Making the person responsible to call you first may help avoid the attempt.

At least this way, you can spend time talking and perhaps stop the attempt before it’s too late. The longer you talk with the person, the greater the possibility of preventing his suicide. Perhaps the two of you can reach a better solution to the person’s problems, like releasing pent-up emotions or praying or seeking professional help.

Discuss problems

While talking, try to get the individual to open up about any recent problems, emotions, fears, or sudden life changes. Here are some possibilities:

  • divorce, separation, break up of a relationship
  • recent argument
  • death in the family
  • loss of job or starting a new job
  • new school
  • loss of home or acquiring a new home
  • loss of religious faith
  • loss of interest in friends, hobbies, activities previously enjoyed

Outside help

If someone you suspect might be contemplating suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline number in your phone book (under Community Services). If you don’t find an 800 number there, call your local police (not 911, unless the situation becomes dangerous). Ask if there is a suicide prevention team in your area.

Call a physician, psychiatrist, or therapist. Most medical insurance providers cover mental health.

Check your phone book for mental health centers, local church support groups, Christian guidance counselors, and community youth programs.

Turning to God

The best solution in helping a suicidal person is to point him to God. Let the person know of God’s constant love and care with the words from 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (NIV).

Explain to the person that we cast our anxiety on God by talking to Him through prayer. Prayer doesn’t have to be wordy; it can be simple — like talking to a friend. Say that if we ask Him, God will carry us through; He will never leave us.

Also tell the person that none of us can make it through life without a constant support system. God wants to be that support system. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). He’s a loving and caring God whose plan for us is that we live our lives to the fullest.


It is too late for Jamie. If someone could have talked to her, let her unleash her despair and emotions, prayed with her, and helped her find a better solution, perhaps she would be alive today.

But others may be teetering on the edge of a fatal decision. Through understanding the causes and effects of suicide and through taking proper action, we can help preserve the precious life God gave them.

* Name has been changed.

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