Introducing the Topic of Suicide
Maggie: I want to talk to you about something, but I don’t know how to do it?
John: I am not sure I understand what you mean.
Maggie: It’s a tough topic, but one I think we need to talk about more.
John: Okay, what’s the topic?
Maggie: First you have to promise you won’t freak out.
John: All right, I promise.
Maggie: The topic is young adults who are thinking about killing themselves. You know, suicide.
John: AAAHHHH, I’m freaking ooouuuuutttt!
Maggie: Not funny!
John: Sorry. I was just trying to lighten it up a bit to make our conversation a little easier. I agree that this is a tough topic.
But I am interested in why you think it is so difficult to discuss?
Maggie: Because when you try to talk about it people immediately conclude that it is you who is thinking about suicide, and they want to take you to a psychiatrist.
John: I agree that people tend to personalize the discussion, and that is rather unfortunate.
Maggie: But I think if we talk about suicide more, it would get easier and easier to discuss. And that would be helpful to people, especially those who are struggling.
John: I agree, but let me rephrase your statement just a bit: if we discuss it more, the topic would eventually lose its negative stigma. And that is a good thing.
So let’s have a conversation about it.
Why It’s Important to Discuss the Topic of Suicide
Maggie: I don’t know where to start.
John: Why don’t we start with an explanation about why this topic has taken on a sense of importance to you?
Maggie: A girl I know killed herself last month. She was just fourteen. I didn’t know her well, but I did know her.
It made me feel heavy inside when I found out, like a weight had been put on my chest. And my brain got foggy; it was hard to think. I still feel sad. I didn’t know anything was bothering her.
John: You are not going to like this, but I am glad that you felt bad. It means you care, both about her and about other teens having suicidal thoughts. I am proud of you.
Maggie: I wanted to talk about it, to talk about how I was feeling. But when I tried to talk to others, including some teachers, they looked at me like I was the one thinking about killing myself. So I quit. I am not bringing it up with them any more.
John: Like we said earlier, people personalize the topic. But I am glad you are talking to me now.
Maggie: You’re easy to talk to.
John: Thanks. I have an idea that will help us in our discussion, and possibly help others who want to talk about this.
John: It’s hard to have this conversation when we are talking about others who are having suicidal thoughts. So let’s do this: let’s role-play. Why don’t you personalize the discussion by putting yourself in the place of a young girl who had just ended her life. That way we can get at some honest answers and honest reflection without the depersonalization of third-party discussions. I think the conversation will be more meaningful that way.
Maggie: That is fine as long as you remember the roles we are playing.
John: I will remember.
Maggie: So how do we start?
John: I will start with a hard question.
Maggie: Okay, I am in my role.
A Voice from the Grave
John: I heard you just ended your life. Can you tell me why?
Maggie: You can say I killed myself. That is okay, you know. Old people are always trying to soften their language when they talk about suicide, but they only do it for themselves. They are the ones who are uncomfortable.
John: That is true, the topic does make most of us uncomfortable. But we soften our language out of respect too, both for the dead and for the families of the dead.
Maggie: I get that. But others are not here right now, just me. So let’s have an honest conversation.
John: You are right, we should speak openly and frankly. I will rephrase my question.
So you killed yourself a month ago. That seems pretty horrible to me. No, it seems very horrible. Why did you do it?
Maggie: I can’t really provide an answer, or at least one that will satisfy you.
John: Why not?
Maggie: Because it doesn’t exist, or at least I don’t think the answer exists.
John: I don’t understand. You didn’t just randomly end your life. There has to be a reason.
Maggie: Maybe in some cases, but not in all. Not in my case.
John: Can you expand on that thought, even a little bit?
Maggie: Hum… I don’t know. (Thinking…)
It’s more like this. There is no one or two reasons why I did it, at least nothing I can point to right now. It’s more the opposite, like I had no reason not to do it. Does that make sense?
John: Sorry, I am still not getting it.
Maggie: I’m trying my best, but let me see if I can explain it a little better.
Some young people kill themselves because something traumatic happened to them. Maybe they were being bullied, either in person or online. And maybe the bullying got so bad they felt like this was the only way to end it. So they had a reason.
John: I really dislike bullies. Were you bullied or picked on?
Maggie: Of course, but no more than any other kid in school who was not part of the popular crowd.
John: Do you think that it contributed to your decision to kill yourself?
Maggie: It may have, but it wasn’t a traumatic experience that I would point to as a reason. I mean I didn’t do it because I was bullied.
Maggie: Other young people may have felt overwhelmed or scared for some reason. I heard about this one kid who killed himself because he got into an accident that caused the death of another person. Even though it wasn’t his fault, he was afraid of what was going to happen next. The fear got to be too much, and that was his reason.
You can see where I am going with this: some young people have distinct reasons for killing themselves. And there are many such reasons. Life is hard when you are young.
John: I understand, but I think we need to clear up a couple of things. When you say that these young people had a reason, you mean that the events that you are calling the “reasons” are actually the catalysts for them taking their lives. In logic terms, the events were the causes and the effects were their life-ending decisions. We are not making any moral or qualitative judgments.
Maggie: That’s right, but why is that important?
John: Because we don’t want readers to walk away with the idea that these “reasons” are good reasons or justified reasons or even bad reasons for young people to end their lives.
Maggie: They are just causes, like you said. I am not making any moral or qualitative judgments here.
John: Good. So continue.
Maggie: I didn’t have any specific reasons or causes for killing myself. It was more like my entire life was the reason.
John: I don’t mean to be so dumb, but I am going to need some details.
Maggie: You are not dumb. It is not exactly clear in my mind either and your questions are helping me think this through more clearly.
John: Good. To move us forward, why don’t you start by explaining to me a little about an ordinary day for you, focusing on approximately one month before you killed yourself.
Maggie: All right. Every single day I felt bad inside, but I can’t really tell you what that feeling was.
John: Describe it to me.
Maggie: My gut felt empty, but my chest felt heavy. I don’t know how else to explain it.
John: Let me suggest some words and then you can choose a couple that help: scared, stressed, anxious, upset, nervous, uneasy, apprehensive, fearful, frightened.
Maggie: No, no, no, none of those.
John: Well, why don’t you describe a situation that stands out in your mind and I will try to put a word to it.
Maggie: You know that moment that you enter a room and look around at the others already in the room?
John: Sure, I know what you are referring to.
Maggie: I hated that moment. I would enter a classroom and my stomach would feel empty and my chest would get heavy, like I said above. Sometimes my head would get foggy also.
Maggie: Yes! That’s it! I dreaded going into the classrooms at school. A deep, deep dread.
Maggie: Because when I walked in I would see everyone talking, but I knew no one would talk to me. It was like I didn’t exist in the room. And sometimes, a lot of times, it was worse than that.
John: How could it be worse?
Maggie: Have you ever sat down knowing that the person you sat next to was disappointed that you actually sat in that particular chair? I could tell by looking at the person that she wanted someone else, anyone else, to sit next to her. I knew that every time I entered a room and sat down someone was thinking that exact thing. No one wanted to talk to me. No one wanted me by them. So I started looking for corners where no one else was sitting. Most of last year I sat by myself.
John: That sounds very lonely.
Maggie: It was, but I felt more than loneliness. I felt dread. I dreaded going to my classes. I dreaded going to assemblies. I even dreaded going into the bathroom. The feeling of dread followed me everywhere I went.
John: I bet that made group projects hard.
Maggie: It did. No one wanted to work with me. I tried to be helpful when I was forced to work on teams, but I knew the students all wanted someone else on their teams, not me.
John: Were people verbal about their feelings towards you, or physical?
Maggie: Occasionally a kid would say something mean about me sitting next to her or being on her team. But most didn’t. I could just tell by the way they looked at me or ignored me that they were disappointed that I was there. I could just tell.
John: How about in between classes, how did it go then?
Maggie: When I walked down the halls, kids I have known for years refused to acknowledge me. Even if I said hi, they would usually just ignore me. The best I could get was a nod. No one said ever said hi first. Not a single person. But lunchtime was the worst. It got so bad that I started sneaking my lunch into the library and eating in a cubicle while I read.
I like your word dread. Now that we are talking about it, it really makes sense to me. I came to dread any place where there were a lot of other students.
John: How about the teachers, what were they like?
Maggie: You know what’s funny? Sometimes I think they were worse than the students. Not all of them, but enough. I didn’t get bad grades, but I didn’t get great grades either. I was just a normal kid, like most other kids, so the teachers just ignored me. Some didn’t even bother to learn my name, or forgot it the second a class ended. I was just invisible to them.
Do you want to know what was even worse?
Maggie: Teachers would sometimes pass by and say hello to a student that happened to be sitting close to me, but completely ignore me. They didn’t even acknowledge my existence, again like I wasn’t there. And more than a few times a teacher would point out another student for an accomplishment, but ignore the exact same accomplishment when I did it. That is how I knew the teachers didn’t want me around either, that I didn’t matter.
John: Was any one nice to you, even occasionally?
Maggie: Oh sure, every once in a while, and that would make my whole day better. But now that I am reflecting on it, that was kind of sick too. One stupid hi was all it would take to stop my bad feelings, but I couldn’t even get that most of the time.
Boy, I felt alone some times.
John: Did you try joining any clubs or groups?
Maggie: I did. But it didn’t help. I dreaded going because I knew no on cared whether I was there or not. And once I got there I would feel bad about myself the entire time we were meeting.
I worked on the yearbook for a short time last year. But whenever we met, no one wanted to hear my ideas. Whenever I started to share an idea, some other person would cut me off. I once shared an idea that was a really good idea. But when the head of the club summarized the meeting, she gave credit to another older girl who spoke after me. It was like I hadn’t even spoken. I ended up quitting.
John: How often did you have these feelings of dread and loneliness?
Maggie: Every day. Some days were better than others, but every day had some bad parts.
Do you see what I am trying to say? Do you understand?
Every day, every single freaking day, I was alone in some way. I walked to school alone, I walked to class alone, I ate lunch alone. Sure there were times when I wasn’t alone, but mostly I was alone.
But if being alone was all there was, that would have been okay. I could have dealt with that.
But it wasn’t just that. It was more. Really, nobody cared if I was around. No one cared, even a little. And like I said, most people were actually disappointed when I was around because it meant I took up space that they wanted someone else to occupy.
John: Do you feel like people disliked you?
Maggie: No, no one hated me, well mostly no one. It’s just that they were ambivalent about me. Live, die, who cared?
John: That had to be hard, and I mean really hard.
Maggie: It was. That’s why I killed myself. To get over the bad feelings.
John: My next question is not meant to make you mad, I just want to know.
John: Why didn’t you talk to your parents?
John: Yes, really.
Maggie: Wow. That is what old people always want to know. But the answer is so obvious. How do you tell your mom or dad that you have no friends, or worse, that most people are disappointed that you even take up space in their worlds? You can’t tell them that. No one can. No one could.
John: What would happen if you did?
Maggie: I don’t know.
John: Can you guess?
Maggie: They would have tried to force friendships on me by setting up events with other families that had kids my age. It would only have made things worse.
John: Yeah, that seems right.
How about a counselor, do you think they would have sent you to a counselor?
Maggie: Yes, maybe.
John: Would that have helped?
Maggie: I don’t know.
John: I am going to need more than “I don’t know.”
Maggie: What if it’s the truth?
John: Then just guess for me, okay?
Maggie: Okay. Yes, it might have helped, maybe, probably, if I gotten the right counselor and she didn’t immediately freak out and put me in a hospital. But that is such a big risk to take, so I don’t know if I would have gone.
John: Can you think of anything else that could have helped?
Maggie: Off the top of my head, changing schools. I wish I could have gone to a small, private school with small classes. I did better when there were only a few students around then when there were a lot of people.
John: Yeah, me too. I don’t like large groups either.
Maggie: Maybe that is why you are so easy for me to talk to.
John: Could be. But why didn’t you change schools?
Maggie: I couldn’t bring myself to ask my parents about it.
John: Why not?
Maggie: Two reasons, I think. If I asked them, they would want to know why, and I couldn’t explain it to them. And we are not a rich family, so I don’t think we could have afforded it.
John: Don’t you think your parents would have sacrificed if they knew how important it was to you?
Maggie: They might have. I should have asked. But I couldn’t. Inside, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
John: Anything else?
Maggie: It seems funny to me now, but just a little kindness would have gone a long way. Just a little conversation. Just a little attention. I mean, come on, just one hi in the morning often made me feel better for most of the day. God people are so damn mean, without even intentionally being mean.
John: Yes, I agree. Most of us are so self-centered that we don’t even know when we are being mean to others.
But I can see you are starting to get upset. Do you still want to continue with our conversation?
Maggie: I am upset, and sad and angry and a whole bunch of other things.
John: Do you want to stop?
Maggie: Yes. No. I don’t know. Do you think continuing might help someone like me? I mean in the future?
John: Yes. Yes I do.
Maggie: Okay. This is hard, but let’s continue.
John: So at what point did you decide to kill yourself?
Maggie: Not right away.
John: What do you mean?
Maggie: I didn’t sit around and think about killing myself, at least not at first. But eventually, the idea just popped into my mind. I was sitting in a class and the idea just came, “Why don’t you just kill yourself and end this.”
At first the idea came only once in a while. But once it started, it came more and more and more. In the end, it was like it was never far from my brain.
I could be wrong, but I think that pain does that to a person. We search for any relief and that is when these terrible ideas come into our minds. Slowly at first, initiated by the bad feelings, but once they find a place in our brains they come more and more often.
John: I think you are right.
How long did it take before you started planning to kill yourself?
Maggie: It’s not like that. I didn’t plan it.
John: So how did you get to the point where you did it?
Maggie: I just eventually knew that I should do it. It was like at some point I just realized that I should end my life. And then I knew that I was actually going to do it. I can’t remember ever deciding to kill myself, I just realized that I should and then I knew that I was going to. It was just there, the decision.
John: What happened next?
Maggie: I bought what I needed to do it. But after I bought it I got scared and decided not to do it.
John: What happened then?
Maggie: It was like I was too far down the path to turn back. The next time, a few days later, when I had a really, really bad day, it was so easy to go back into the darkness. So I did it. I just did it.
John: I am so sorry. I know it sounds trivial now, but I really am.
Maggie: Are we still having an honest and frank discussion?
John: Of course.
Maggie: Good, because I want to tell you this: I look back now and I think the whole thing is pretty screwed up. Really screwed up. But if things were the same, with nothing different, it is more than possible that I would do the same thing again. The dread, that awful dread, and the loneliness, got so bad I couldn’t do anything but think about putting an end to it.
John: What about enduring the pain until it ended?
Maggie: Continue to suffer and just endure? Don’t be stupid. I couldn’t see that far down the path. I just needed it all to end. Some kids turn to drugs to solve the pain, and some to alcohol, and some to running away. But those options weren’t really open to me, so I resolved it the only way I could think of.
Helping Others with Thoughts of Suicide
John: Wow. Give me a minute to collect my thoughts. (Pause…)
All right. We are having this conversation for a purpose: to help others thinking about suicide.
John: What should have happened to change things for you? Tell me not just the big things, but the small things also.
Maggie: You know these are just reflections from the grave, right?
John: Yes, I get it, these are ideas learned from drastic experience.
Maggie: And most young adults can’t have these thoughts because they are not dead yet.
John: I love your honesty.
Maggie: Well, it’s true.
John: That is why I am asking you, so others can benefit from your experience.
Maggie: Okay, I just want to make sure we are on the same page.
John: We are.
Maggie: First, let’s talk about the big things.
No. 1. We need to change how we treat others, especially those people who are not in the popular crowd. I mean, damn, how hard is it to be nice to someone, even if you don’t know a person that well. It would have gone a long way if a student or teacher would have talked to me or included me in their conversations, even occasionally. I don’t expect every one to like me, but surely some people could have paid occasional attention to me.
This especially applies to teachers or other adults, they could have paid some attention to me. Even a little. Even a little…
Can you imagine what it would be like to go to work every day and have your boss ignore you, while paying attention to others? What if he walked by and said hello to others, just not to you? What if he complimented everyone else on their work, but ignored your accomplishments? You would start to hate your job and you would start to worry about being fired. Am I right? Eventually you would even start to wonder what was wrong with you as a person. You would start to doubt yourself, and you would start to doubt your work. Eventually, like me, you would begin to withdraw from the other employees. Am I right?
John: Yes, that is exactly what would happen.
Maggie: Well… That is exactly what it was like for me. Every single freaking day.
I mean I don’t get it. Why can’t people just be nice?
John: I agree with you, we need to start talking about reaching out to others who seem to be alone or who are not in our cliques. Let’s start that conversation.
Maggie: You will have to do that, because… well… you know…
John: An attempt at humor?
Maggie: To lighten it up a bit, like you said.
John: You’re funny.
Do you have any other advice?
No. 2. We need to let young people know that they can make big changes in their lives, and that we will help them in any way we can to do so. I would still be alive today if I could have changed schools or moved to a new city, or at least I think I would.
I knew a boy who was in a car accident, a bad one, where people got hurt. Afterwards, he couldn’t take the verbal abusing he was getting at school. I was really worried about him for a time. I thought he was going to kill himself. But then he moved to a really small school in town. His parents had to sacrifice a lot to send him there, but they did it. And it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He went from being a C and D student to getting all As. I think he even graduated second in his class. He also made some good friends at the new school and even started going out with this really nice girl. Last time I saw him he seemed like a different person, a happy person.
John: Why didn’t you make these changes?
Maggie: Because I didn’t know how to bring it up with my parents. I was afraid to do so. I wish I had known if my parents would have been willing to make such sacrifices for me. I wish I would have known.
John: What about counseling? Do you recommend that, now that you have some knowledge based upon your experience?
Maggie: You’re funny, saying “knowledge based upon my experience.” Just say what you really want to say.
John: I am still not comfortable with this topic, but I will ask it the right way. Based on your recent reflections about killing yourself, do you think counseling would have helped?
Maggie: That’s a little better. And yes, that is the third big thing.
No. 3. I think counseling might have helped if I had the right counselor, a good counselor that understood suicide. If nothing else, a good counselor might have helped me talk to my parents about changing schools.
John: Anything else?
Maggie: Just one last little thing.
No. 4. I might have called a help line if I had a number to call. I wish my parents had posted a helpline number on our fridge.
John: That is really wise. So let’s wrap this up for now with one final question: What is your best advice to young adults.
Maggie: Don’t be afraid to talk to your parents, even if it is uncomfortable. Tell them you want to make a change, bring it up, scream it from the rooftop if necessary. Make them hear you.
And make a change if you can: change schools, change cities, change anything, change everything, to help you feel better.
Don’t do what I did, don’t kill yourself. Just don’t do it.
John: Okay, we are out of the role-play now.
Maggie: I am tired. That was really hard.
John: For me too.
Maggie: What do you think of the conversation?
John: Besides being emotionally draining, I have several thoughts.
First, I agree even more than ever that we need to have these conversations more often, not less. Older generations thought that if we talked about suicide it would make it easier for young people to commit suicide. But that is just wrong thinking. So let’s keep the conversation going.
Second, I was really struck by the comment that you didn’t have a reason for committing suicide, but that you didn’t have a reason for not doing it. That is heartbreaking. It reinforced the idea that we need to pay more attention to the people around us.
Third, I like your notion that a little kindness goes a long way, even to the point of saving a life. So we should not forget the little gestures in life, like saying hi to someone in the hall, or stopping by someone’s locker to chat for a minute, or simply asking about someone’s weekend. We often forget how meaningful these short conversations can be.
Lastly, we need to encourage change. And let’s start by encouraging parents to let their kids know that they will make changes, any changes, to help.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Maggie: Yes, one thing.
We need to remember that it is often the everyday events that grind us down and push people to suicide, not just the traumatic experiences. So we need to help people deal with the everydayness.
Let me give you a neat example. I know this wonderful girl who, when she was a senior, used to take a freshman girl with special needs to coffee a couple times a month. The freshman girl didn’t have any friends until this senior reached out to her. Who knows how beneficial this friendship was and still is, but I bet it went a long way towards preventing thoughts of suicide. We need to do more things like this.
John: I can’t say I enjoyed our conversation, because it was exhausting. But I really appreciate your insights. You are a wonderful person.
Maggie: Back at ya, old man!
[If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, talk to someone, anyone. Also check out suicidepreventionlifeline.org for additional help.]