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The Dos and Don’ts Of Talking To Someone Who is Suicidal

Update Date: Jun 13, 2017 07:09 PM EDT

On July 22, 2013, California Highway Patrol officer Kevin Briggs watched helplessly as 32-year-old Jason Garber committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was not his only experience with someone threatening suicide. Though that day ended tragically, over the years he has sometimes succeeded in saving a life.

What would you do if your friend, family member, or loved one was suicidal? What would you say? According to Briggs, talking only scratches the surface.

"In my experience, it's not just the talking that you do, but the listening," Briggs said. "Listen to understand. Don't argue, blame, or tell the person you know how they feel, because you probably don't."

"If you think someone is suicidal, don't be afraid to confront them and ask the question," Briggs continued. "One way of asking them the question is like this: 'Others in similar circumstances have thought about ending their life; have you had these thoughts?' Confronting the person head-on may just save their life and be the turning point for them."

Briggs' Experience

When Briggs arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge that day in 2013, Garber was speaking with another bridge officer. After an hour of trying to talk him down, Garber asked Briggs if he was familiar with the story of Pandora's box.

Garber uttered his final question -- "What happens when you open the box and hope isn't there?" -- and then he was gone.

Several years earlier, however, Briggs met Kevin Berthia -- a man Briggs refers to as "hope and courage."

On March 11, 2005, Briggs responded to a radio call of a possible suicidal subject standing on the bridge sidewalk near the north tower.

"When he saw me, he immediately traversed that pedestrian rail, and stood on that small pipe which goes around the tower," Briggs said. "For the next hour and a half, I listened as Kevin spoke about his depression and hopelessness. Kevin decided on his own that day to come back over that rail and give life another chance."

"When Kevin came back over, I congratulated him. 'This is a new beginning, a new life.' But I asked him, 'What was it that made you come back and give hope and life another chance? And you know what he told me? He said, 'You listened. You let me speak, and you just listened.'"

Things To Keep In Mind

According to Emory University, 34,598 people take their lives each year - that's an average of 94 suicides per day. Here's how you can help:

  • Offer empathy, not sympathy.
  • Show genuine interest and support.
  • Don't ask "why," this will only encourage defensiveness.
  • Offer hope - let them know there are alternatives; depression can be treated.

The Bottom Line

If you encounter someone who is suicidal, remember to listen. "Active listening," like in officer Briggs case could save a life. Instead of arguing or attempting to talk the person out of their decision, let them know you care and that he or she is not alone.

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