I read a very sad story about a man who committed suicide. (Of course, all such stories are sad.) The man had gotten himself into some reasonably deep debt via gambling, something like $30,000, after losing his job. When faced with the prospect of having to explain to his wife and kids why they were going to lose their house and such, he couldn’t do it and he ended his life.
Naturally, the news story featured conversations with the man’s loved ones – notably, his wife and her parents. All of the quoted parties said that it was a “needless” tragedy, because $30,000 of debt seems like a such a small amount of money to end your own life over, and if he had just talked to them instead of doing what he did, they would have understood and loved him and found a way through it together.
I was very sad when reading this, for both the man and for everyone he left behind. But when I read those quotes, all I could think was: “No you wouldn’t.”
Of course, you’d say that when the shock hits you, but the reality isn’t anything like that. Sure, $30k seems like a small amount to kill yourself over, but it’s a lot to just ask someone for. And when someone’s still alive and asking, you don’t think you’re paying a paltry sum to save someone’s life – you think that your good-for-nothing son-in-law has gambled away his family’s future and is now begging for a handout. And if the man truly was radically honest? If he said, “I’ve got one end of the noose tied, but before I go through with it I wanted to make one last attempt to solve my problem another way, will you help me?” You’d think he was a manipulative jerk, basically using the threat of suicide as emotional blackmail.
Suicide is inherently unbelievable. If someone tells you that they’re planning to end their own life, your immediate thought is: “Well, if you’re telling me about it, you can’t really want to do it, you just want some measure of attention or something.” That’s exactly what happens in everyone’s head. And the best possible response is usually some sort of “crisis” intervention that takes you from the very edge and puts you like six inches back from the edge, doing a lot of damage to your life along the way, and then abandons you.
The road to ending your own life is a really, really long one. Imagine a long, maybe miles-long slope leading eventually to a cliff. Pretty much everything we do to prevent this – as individuals and as a society – is designed to try to put a net at the very end, to keep people from going over. But that’s it. We don’t talk about the slope at all.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do things for crisis cases. But if you find someone standing on a bridge, pulling them back a few feet and then saying, “okay, all set,” isn’t doing enough.
You have to intervene way earlier than that. By the time someone is holding his own life in his hands, he’s doing it because all the other lines of communication were already cut. The parents and widow lamenting the fact that the man didn’t just talk to them? He knew how it would go. He knew he’d probably be facing a broken family, ostracization, hatred, scorn. It’s easy to say “we would have understood” when the man’s dead and you don’t have to face the unpleasant burden of actually understanding, loving someone through their mistakes, and finding a way forward.
The reality is that he already knew what would happen. He knew his lines of communication had been cut a long time ago.
Pulling someone off a ledge is dramatic and feels good and does nothing. Having a cup of coffee with a friend on a normal day as part of the tapestry that keeps them from feeling totally alone doesn’t feel heroic, but it saves more lives. It’s easier to stop that avalanche when it’s just a tiny snowball at the top of the slope.