Let’s see how uncomfortable we can make the readership: let’s talk about suicide.
Most folks are squeamish on this topic, which I suppose is a good thing. The act of suicide is horribly self-centered, ugly and often the permanent solution to a temporary problem. In the scores of suicides and suicide attempts I have personally witnessed, there have only been a few cases where I could begin to sympathize with the “victim.”
Regardless of our personal outlook or religious views toward the act of killing oneself, it is an issue that has a major bearing upon our collective safety and security. If you’re a cop, you’ve dealt with more suicidal people than you can recount, while others in public service also regularly encounter the act or its byproducts. Given the prevalence of suicidal actions in our society, it is even likely that John Q. Citizen will run into situations where he is confronted with someone who is at least making threats to end his/her own life.
Aside from widespread prevalence, the reason this topic falls squarely within our purview is the fact that if someone has truly lost the will to live, they often give less than two hoots in hell about our well-being. This factor provides the explanation for such dramatic and senseless events as murder-suicides, active-shooter incidents and the like.
From a street-level-response perspective, there are two primary flavors of this problem: those threatening suicide and those who actually intend to commit the act. This is a gross oversimplification, but for those of us who confront such situations in the bedrooms and workplaces of America, these two categories suffice.
Unfortunately, the problem is that we have not yet developed the ability to read minds, so we never know which variety of person we are dealing with. Therefore, the golden rule of dealing with a potential suicide is to never let our guard down. This is simple in theory but frequently challenging in application, especially when the person is a friend or family member.
When dealing with someone who is threatening suicide but hasn’t actually done anything in furtherance of the act, the natural tendency is to dismiss the statements as drunken talk, minor depression, or some other variety of bull excrement. This is where we get into trouble. Cops in particular often fall into this trap because we deal on an almost daily basis with “suicidal” people who simply want attention. In fact, I handled one of these calls just four hours prior to writing this column.
Regardless of our belief in the person’s intent, we must take such threats seriously, both in regard to the potential victim’s well-being and, more importantly, our own personal safety. Even after all these years at the cop shop, I’m still surprised when a longtime “customer” kills themselves after years of endless suicide attempts that appeared to be nothing more than attention-seeking. People are complex, often random organisms, and whenever you’re absolutely certain that you have someone figured out, get ready for a surprise. In the case of dealing with a suicidal person, that surprise could be fatal.
In my area, someone uttering the magic words “I want to kill myself” gets a quick, non-negotiable trip to a psychiatric facility. Aside from providing help to those who really are suicidal, the hassles involved cut down somewhat on repeat calls by those who aren’t actually serious.
While talk is cheap, we cannot discount any suicidal statement just because the person hasn’t yet put a gun to their head. There is some truth to the old saying, “If they’re talking about it, they won’t do it,” but there have been dramatic instances where this old chestnut was dead wrong. When someone is talking about killing themselves, there are three possibilities: they are an attention-seeker, seriously considering the act, or have already made the decision. Unless you are clairvoyant, you must always assume that the last circumstance is the reality.
This applies to strangers, friends, co-workers, family members, lovers, partners, or your mom. Get them help if possible, but don’t place yourself in a situation where you can’t easily respond to lethal force if things suddenly turn ugly. They might only want to harm themselves, but there’s a high probability that you could be hurt trying to intervene.
When talking to a possibly suicidal person, get things out in the open. I’ve seen too many people dance around the issue when they simply needed to acknowledge what the person was already thinking. Ask them directly, “Do you intend to harm or kill yourself?” Though it might seem rude or confrontational, the answer gives a quick clue into the mental processes of someone who might be on the verge of committing violence against themselves or others.
If the answer is yes, do something. Remove the person to a safer environment, get them help, or notify someone who can do both. In any event, you must view the person as a live grenade with the pin halfway out.
Active shooters are a special type of suicide. Though some gunmen survive these incidents, usually the suspect intends to die after committing their mayhem. In these cases, you need to oblige their death wish as soon as possible, because they will continue killing until confronted or they are down to their last bullet. As we’ve seen, negotiation or containment only results in more innocent lives lost.
What if the act has already been committed? If confronted with a suicide, weigh the benefits of possibly saving the person’s life versus being injured or killed yourself.
I can think of instances where police officers have been hurt trying to rescue carbon monoxide victims from a garage although the victim had been dead for hours. If a gun is involved, semiautomatic firearms are often still cocked and loaded, frequently with a finger in the trigger guard.
Slow down and be extremely careful before taking any action.
Anything less would be suicidal.