How to Save a Life

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(Note to the reader: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Susie Magazine which has since gone out of print. With the recent passing of Robin Williams and the worldwide discussion its sparked about mental health and how we can help, I thought it was a good time to share this again. Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)

Sasha and I had been casually swapping notes in math class—ready to chuck our hands underneath our desks as quickly as Jackie Chan if the teacher looked our way. Now I stared in confused horror at the words on the slip of paper she had passed me:

Suicide . . . more than 20 pills . . . molested . . .

Please, don’t tell anyone. I won’t be your friend anymore if you do.

I was in shock, but I still managed to write back: I won’t. I cringed as I handed the note back to her and thought about the promise I’d just made.

Now What?
What was I going to do? Sasha had just told me she wanted to kill herself. I’d never heard anything more heartbreaking in all my life, and I couldn’t just stand by and let something like that happen!

The burden I felt was enormous. I was probably the only one she’d shared this secret with, and I felt as though it was my responsibility to share this pain with her, to save her. But I was only 16—like Sasha! What could I do?

That night I read her note again, sobbing and praying. “Father,” I prayed, “what can I do? How can such evil exist? Help me, God. I don’t know what to do.”

All I wanted was a good, old-fashioned mom-hug. But would Mom understand? How could she know how badly this hurt? I finally decided to break my promise and headed to my older sister’s room. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the ally I was seeking.

“She’s probably lying,” Heather said.

“She’s not lying,” I replied. How could my sister think someone could lie about something so serious?

I decided to give my mom a shot at this and found myself enveloped in that desperately needed but strangely avoided mom-hug. As I cried into her shoulder, she said the most amazing thing: “It’s OK. I’ll take this now. You don’t have to carry it anymore.”

I’ll never forget the relief I felt, knowing it was no longer in my hands. My mom would take care of it. She knew what to do. I didn’t have to carry the burden any longer; she’d carry it for me.

The very next day my parents and I went to the principal’s office with the note in hand.

How to Help
Perhaps you have been where I was. Maybe a friend has sworn you to secrecy, and you’re torn between loyalty and helping her. Maybe you simply feel helpless and don’t know where to begin or what to do. I want to offer a few suggestions:

1. Take the threat seriously.
If your friend is showing signs of being suicidal (see “Signs That Your Friend May Be Suicidal” below), don’t assume she’s being overly dramatic or messing around. Fifty to 75 percent of all suicides give some warning of their intentions to a friend or a family member.

Unsure? Ask her! “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” Many suicidal people are looking for a way out. Your question just might give her the freedom to open up about the struggle she’s been facing, and give you an opportunity to help.

My older sister’s first inclination was to say that Sasha was just lying to get attention. While in some instances that could be the case, it would be much better to find out you’re wrong than to not do anything and discover you were right.

2. Drop the burden.
Bring an adult—a parent, youth pastor, principal, or someone else you trust—into the situation who can help you and your friend. Tell a parent, youth pastor, principal or another trusted adult. It’s not up to you to save your friend. He/she may need counseling or professional treatment for depression. This is too big for you to handle on your own!

This was tough for me to do, because I had to break the promise I’d made to my friend. By doing so, I knew I was also risking her friendship. But if I hadn’t told anyone, I would’ve never gotten Sasha the help she needed. In the end, I realized that keeping a promise could never be as important as keeping my friend alive.

If you can sense that a friend is getting ready to share something heavy with you—and she tries to make you promise not to tell anyone—try hard not to make that promise. Instead, say something like, “I really care about you, and there’s no way I’m going to promise not to share your secret. If you were holding a gun to your head, I’d tell someone. I care about you too much to leave you in danger. But I can promise I’ll never gossip about you. If I have to share your secret, it will be with a trusted adult who has your best interests in mind.”

3. Pray.
Prayer is one of the best ways of dropping burdens. No one cares more about your friend than God, and there’s no one better at saving than the Savior. So don’t even try to handle this by yourself. It’s too heavy.

Just as I had felt so relieved when my mom had promised to carry my burden, Jesus stands ready to do the same. Check out what He tells us in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Isaiah 53 describes Christ as one who “carried our sorrows.” What amazing grace that we can just relax in our heavenly Father’s embrace, release our burdens upon His able shoulders and let Him do the work!

The burden of a suicidal friend should not and does not have to be carried alone. And my friend Sasha? She got the help she needed and soon returned to school with one last note to drop on my desk:

Thank You.

You’re a really good friend!

Signs that Your Friend May Be Suicidal
If you suspect a friend may be contemplating suicide, strive to honestly answer the following questions that may serve as motivation to get her the help she needs.

• Is she not as interested in friends or activities that she’s previously enjoyed?
• Has she neglected her personal hygiene and appearance? (Stops bathing as often, doesn’t care about her hair or clothing, etc.)
• Do you notice a declining performance in her grades, work or extracurricular activities?
• Have you noticed a personality change? Has she become sad, withdrawn, tired, apathetic, anxious, irritable or extremely angry?
• Does she express feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or self-hatred? Does it appear as though she may lose control or harm herself or others?
• Has she started giving away personal items that mean a lot to her (iPod, special jewelry, etc.)?
• Is she inappropriately saying goodbye?

If you’re concerned that your friend may be considering suicide in the near future, you can get help by calling 9-1-1 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you or someone you know has been suicidal, what helped? What didn’t? What’s one thing you wish others understood about mental health/suicidal tendencies?