Would you know what to do if someone at risk of suicide shared their thoughts and feelings with you? I had a sit-down with a friend to learn more...
I became more aware of suicide back in the mid-2000s: someone whom I had worked with during National Service died by suicide. We weren’t particularly close, but their death caught me off-guard and shocked me. After all these years, my NS buddies and I still couldn’t fathom why this ex-colleague did what they did. We only knew they had relationship issues. That’s about it.
Through the years, suicide has grown more prevalent in Singapore. In fact, no thanks to the pandemic, it seems to have compounded. In 2020, there were about 30 deaths due to Covid-19, compared to 452 deaths due to suicide.
While preparing for this piece, I asked a friend if they knew anyone who has/had suicidal thoughts or survived a suicide attempt. “Me, for the former,” they responded. Our exchange (via text, because we’re millennials like that) led to a blog post that my friend had published last year. Below is a brief reproduction of what they talked about. (Content warning: it includes distressing accounts of suicide.)
“I’ve been thinking a lot…”
I’ve been thinking about my schizophrenic mom. In a fit of anger, she unlocked the aluminium grills, opened the windows to our 12th-storey house, and told me to jump off. I was eight then. Another time, when I was fast asleep, she woke me up and told me to jump off the school building if ever I got scolded by my teachers. I was fifteen then.
I’ve been thinking about my cousin, who had killed herself after her relationship soured. I was eighteen then.
My mind keeps going back to my friend’s death. I thought I’ve gotten over it, but the thoughts kept recurring in my mind.
I wonder why they died. What could we – or I – have done? I wonder who they might’ve become, if they had not decided to die by suicide.
“The light will shine through…”
We arranged to meet the following week. This was going to be the first time where we’d talk about a topic so sensitive. Was I nervous? Yes, a little bit. Knowing that they trusted me enough to be open and talk about such a delicate topic with me; I wanted to do them right when writing this piece. So, we sat ourselves down and got talking…
Do you remember how old you were when you first had suicidal thoughts?
This is a very good question. I cannot recall exactly, but I’ll tell you this: when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder around 10 years ago, I read in a book that those with mental health issues are four to eight times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. That was very sobering to me.
That said, these thoughts tend to come about whenever I think about my friend who took their own life. I was super affected by their death. Also, whenever I feel worthless.
Can you recount any particular incident that stood out to you?
Once, I was at my then-partner’s place; they were already fast asleep. I couldn’t sleep because of my insomnia. I remember distinctly feeling like jumping out of the window… However, I managed to restrain myself by listing down the books that I have yet to read. That helped me.
Tall places with open windows can trigger my suicidal thoughts. I don’t like tall places and I don’t understand the impulse, so I try not to be near windows.
Is there anything else that can trigger these thoughts?
Yes. I posted a book review about a queer singer, which I deeply resonated with, on my Instagram page. That elicited an unfavourable comment from my sibling: “This post is not good.” I was already depressed and suicidal, and her response made me feel even more terrible.
I understand you’ve been going for therapy. Tell us more about it.
I can tell you about my recent session. I started seeing her during circuit breaker last year; she’s a music therapist based in London. Our sessions were conducted via Skype. I was referred to her through a friend’s Instagram. I started by telling her my problem – I was still grappling with my friend’s suicide – and she composed a music piece to help me get over the matter. It’s currently on hold as she’s still on maternity leave.
The good thing about seeing a therapist is that I can tell them anything directly, since I’m paying them to help me process my thoughts, feelings, and problems. There’s one particular exchange I had (with a different therapist) that I can still recall vividly. We were talking and this transpired:
“You’re a survivor. So many things happened to you yet you survived. What do you think about when I say that?”
“I think of Beyoncé… Maybe I’ll go play the song!”
If you could go back in time to meet yourself when you first had suicidal thoughts, what would you say to that person?
It’s important to know that when you’re in a dark place, the light will shine through and dawn will come. Things may seem impossible now, but a lot can change in the future. We can say no to things that we don’t like. It can be quite difficult, but we can walk away from things that are unhealthy. Ultimately, we can choose the good things in our lives.
What words of encouragement do you have for anyone who’s having suicidal thoughts or at risk of suicide?
There’s a saying that goes: “A burden shared is a burden halved.” So, find someone whom you trust and can talk to, be it a friend or a therapist. If you have trouble opening up to people, write down your thoughts first. When you’ve found that trustworthy person, you can show them what you’ve written. If you have a mental health issue, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Don’t keep things to yourself. Also, it’s okay to cry.
Be sensitive, empathise, and listen
In the days leading up to our meeting, I came across an Instagram post by @mentalhealthceo that has been very helpful:
Similar to the above post, The Huffington Post has published a more detailed piece on phrases to avoid and what you should say instead. @goodgoodgoodco has put up an Instagram post on helping someone who’s contemplating suicide. And, this Twitter thread provides an insightful guide on what you can do after someone’s suicide attempt/s. There are plenty of online resources that you can look to when it comes to breaching this difficult topic.
As a person who’s not at risk of suicide nor had any suicidal thoughts, I know I won’t know how to respond when a suicidal person opens up to me. I do know what I ought to do, though: Be sensitive, empathise, and listen. It may not seem much, but it means a lot to the person at risk.
Remember – a burden shared is a burden halved.