What to do if a loved one is thinking about suicide
What should you do if a loved one is contemplating killing themselves? It’s a scary thought — and one most people aren’t prepared to answer.
Arthur and Galen Emery, two brothers who confronted that question several years ago, say you should have a direct conversation with your loved one and ask: "Are you thinking of killing yourself?” And then a slightly different question: “Do you plan to kill yourself?"
KUOW’s Bill Radke talked with the Emery brothers about how Arthur found a suicide note on Galen’s computer. Galen, in high school at the time, was struggling with their parents’ divorce and with being bullied at school.
“I knew that he wasn't doing well and I thought I should investigate a little further,” Arthur said. “I found a suicide note. And, I mean, it was jarring. It was overwhelming. It was terrifying.”
Arthur, who was home from college at the time, contacted their older brother who suggested he consult a child psychologist. The advice he got may have saved Galen’s life.
According to Arthur, the psychologist said, “Your job is not to be the psychologist. Your job is not to solve these problems. You can't. Your job is to speak to him directly and tell him you love him and tell him you care about him, and tell him that you found the note.”
That’s what Arthur did, and the conversation was a turning point for Galen.
“One of the problems that I was experiencing at the time was that I didn't feel anybody was paying attention to me,” Galen said. “There's a certain amount of, 'Does anybody care about who I am and what do I have to offer?' And so that was a very clear moment that was helpful. That was probably the beginning of my journey toward actual health.”
Galen said he was angry that his brother looked at the files on his computer, but he was also relieved someone knew what he was dealing with. And hearing Arthur say that he loved him made Galen confront the reality of what his suicide would mean for his loved ones.
“A key focus of my depression and my suicidal thoughts is this belief that nobody loves you,” Galen said. “For me at least, to get to the point of considering suicide, you have to convince yourself that nobody's going to miss you when you're gone.”
But not all conversations about suicide go like the Emery brothers’ did. People aren’t always honest about needing help, for starters.
Radke said he had a hard conversation with his brother who was struggling emotionally, but his brother assured him he was seeing a counselor and doing all right.
“I picked up on all the reassurance that I wanted to hear and I didn't know what else to do,” Radke said. “And I told my siblings, ‘Hey, he sounds pretty good.’ And my brother killed himself two days later.”
Suicide is the tenth biggest cause of death in the U.S., with an average of 121 suicides per day, according to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
That’s one of the reasons the Emery brothers want people to talk about mental health and suicide.
Arthur said suicide is taboo, which means that most of us don’t know what to do if a loved one seems to be contemplating killing themselves. He said we should think of mental health like we do physical health: If someone is hurt, they need to see a doctor. And then they’ll need a lot of help as they recover.
“There is nothing in our society that says they should go get some mental crutches, they should go to a mental doctor,” Arthur said. “It's the opposite. It's this idea that this is your problem to deal with, and I'm not here to help you.”
Arthur said he’s lucky that their older brother suggested he talk to a psychologist after finding the note on Galen’s computer.
“I don't have the emotional capacity to be a therapist or to be a psychologist or to help people on a level that those people do,” he said. “What I do have the capacity to do is simple things to show people that I care about that I love them. That really, I think, is your role as a person who is supporting somebody who's going through emotional difficulties.”
Galen said he’s managing his depression now; he is engaged and in the throes of wedding planning. His message for those struggling with suicidal thoughts is that the problems they feel are legitimate.
“Don’t downplay your own depression,” he said. “Don't downplay your own seriousness of the struggles you face as an individual. And understand that the people around you want to help you, and the people around you love you. They care about you. If you give them that opportunity, they'll help.”
If someone you know is contemplating suicide, help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
Written for the web by Amy Rolph.
Bill Radke: I have a heavy question for you now. What should you do if you think somebody you love might kill themselves? My next two guests have some experience with that and so do I. In high school Galen Emery struggled with his parents' divorce and was being bullied at school when his older brother Arthur came home from college for a visit, he found a suicide note that Galen had left on his computer. They got together with me to talk about what happened after that.
Arthur Emery: I actually don't remember if it was on his desktop or if I actually did an active search through his files, but I knew that he wasn't doing well and I thought I should investigate a little further. And I found a suicide note. And, I mean, it was jarring. It was overwhelming. It was terrifying.
I didn't know if it was to exercise thought process, where he was just trying to get his feelings out, or if I was on a ticking clock. So it was immediately very difficult to deal with. But I knew that having the opportunity to have found it that there was an opportunity there to have a positive impact and that's really what I tried to focus on.
Bill Radke: What was going on with that suicide note?
Galen Emery: Yes, so he did an active search. Let's be very clear. [Laughter.] Yeah. I wouldn't have anything on my desktop; it would have been hidden to some fashion or another, knowing that he used my computer upon occasion. And yeah there's a lot of hurt a lot of pain, really depressed. And I've written a number of really kind of depressing and dark poetry, right. Just in general I don't recall ever penning a specific suicide note, right, a note that said very clear that I was going to take my own life or do things like that, but I had a lot of that type of material, right. A lot of that stuff had been written somewhat as a way to deal with the pain and anguish but definitely around that time getting to a point of where we're having legitimate thoughts of how would I commit suicide. What are the ways in which to do that? So that's really where I was at the time.
Bill Radke: Arthur what what was going through your head as you're reading this?
Arthur: When you encounter a situation like that, especially with somebody you love as closely as your brother, it's dumbfounding to be quite honest. You're not given an emotional vocabulary to deal with something of this level when you grow up, especially as a man. You don't get the opportunity to develop yourself emotionally to the point where you can say, 'Oh my gosh I understand that he's hurting this badly. I know what to do.' And so you're lost. I mean, you're immediately heartbroken; you're sick to your stomach; you're scared; you're worried; you're...you feel guilty; you feel shameful because you feel that maybe I should have been there more.
You know, I'm off at college having a great time and living the life and my little brother is down here writing you know dark suicide poetry. It's unbelievably hurtful for yourself to feel like you've sort of missed this opportunity to be there for them.
But suicide is such a taboo subject, even mental health is a taboo subject and I think what we miss is that we have this invisible barrier to dialogue around it. And because we have this invisible barrier you never grow up with any sort of understanding of what to do if you run into a situation like this. You barely know what to do if you have, you know, a sibling who got their heartbroken by a boyfriend or girlfriend, let alone somebody who is so emotionally depressed and distressed that they feel that they might want to take their own life.
Bill Radke: Well, what did you do next?
Arthur: So the first thing I did was try to process it, try to figure out what was going on. I didn't confront my little brother. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. I was worried that I would make things worse. I was worried that I would have a negative impact. What I did instead was I called up our older brother, Brett, and I said, 'Hey, I just found this note on Galen's computer. What should I do?' And he had no ability to understand or deal with it either. But what he did say was, 'Honestly I don't know what to do. You should find the child psychologist and see what they say.' With his financial support, I went to a child psychologist in Bellingham and I sat down with him and I said, 'What do I do?'
He said, 'Your job is not to be the psychologist; your job is not to solve these problems. You can't. Don't put that as an expectation. Your job is to speak to him directly and tell him you love him and tell him you care about him and tell him that you found the note. Be honest about it. You know, take it on the chin. He's going to be mad that you looked through his stuff. But be honest and let him know and tell him that you care and that you support him and help him out in any way you can.' So he was very clear; he made it very simple which I thought was really helpful.
Bill Radke: Galen, what's your memory of how Arthur started this conversation?
Galen: Yes. I mean, I can't recall a lot of detail about it. I very clearly remember having the conversation, but the details of it are lost. And I'm sure a lot of it just because of the emotion. I just, I know that I was very angry; I felt my privacy had been violated, right, and my stuff had been gone through. Also an amount of relief and you know the fact that somebody now knows about it, right. There's an exposure to it.
One of the problems that I was experiencing at the time was that didn't feel anybody was paying attention to me. There's a certain amount of, 'Does anybody care about who I am and what I have to offer?' And so that was a very clear moment that was helpful. That was probably the beginning of my journey towards actual health.
Bill Radke: Well I've heard that a good idea is to ask someone directly, 'Are you thinking of killing yourself?' Do you guys remember did that that? Did you ask him?
Galen: I think he asked that question, yeah. There's a series of questions like "Are you thinking of killing yourself? Do you plan to kill yourself?" At that point I would have definitely been in the "Are you thinking about it?" Right. But, do you have plans to? Absolutely not. That wasn't there at that point in time. So those are super key critical things because they forced me to answer straight up. You have to give an answer to that question there's no skirting it, there's no there's no dodging it, there's no change in the subject...
Bill: You're not pretending that doesn't exist.
Galen: Exactly. It's very direct, very clear. "Hey, what's the state? What's the...how bad is it for you?" It's not a question of, 'Is it bad?" It's a question of, 'How bad' or 'where are we at? What do we need to know about so that we can make it better and help out?'
Bill Radke: So I realize this is such an oversimplified question, but what did it mean to you to have your big brother--after telling you he snooped--say, "Here's where it came from. Are you thinking of killing yourself? And I love you."
Galen: It's it's huge. One of the things that I think is really a key focus of my depression and my suicidal thoughts is this belief that nobody loves you. And I think that for me at least to get to the point of considering suicide, you have to convince yourself that nobody's going to miss you when you're gone.
I think that's a huge piece of the act itself. And to have someone step up and say, 'Hey look this thing's really hard for me. I know you're going to be angry with me as a result of my actions but I did my actions out of the best intentions, of the best heart because I love you and I care about you.'
That's super powerful. You can't walk away from that. You can't dismiss that kind of thing because you know that if he didn't love you he wouldn't have done it, right. Even if he had seen it but some I was like, 'You know what. I don't care enough. He's not that important.' He could have walked away, right? He has those options available to him. But by confronting me, like, all that goes out the window; you can't ignore that piece of of it anymore.
Bill Radke: I was in a situation kind of like yours. I knew my four years older brother was struggling and I invited him to lunch. And I you know first thing: How you doing? And then what's the answer. Oh, not bad you know. And then we got a little deeper. But he said that he was going to go to a V.A. counselor and you know that's, of course, what I wanted to hear. And I think I picked up on all the reassurance that I wanted to hear and I didn't know what else to do. And I told my siblings, "Hey, he sounds pretty good." And my brother killed himself like two days later.
And it's a little hard. It's...I'm really happy that you're here, Galen, and at the same time, it's a little extra hard, maybe some of our listeners can relate, to hear a story of how an intervention, you know, that it really can...that person doesn't have to die.
Arthur: For me it's been it's been quite a journey because you know beyond even the situation that my little brother and I have gone through, I had a friend who I knew in college, Blake King--loved him to death. You know. Lit up a room, great smile, amazing laugh, was so sensitive and caring.
He ended up going to Iraq as a contractor and ended up coming back and he was just sort of a different person. We kept e-mailing and everything and he stopped responding to emails. I just figured, you know, we'd grown apart. I found out this past August that he had passed away through suicide. He had shot himself and that he had done it a few months after we had sort of fallen out of email contact. And I was floored. And I had all the same feelings, I think, Bill, that you did. Even though he wasn't my brother I still had the "what ifs." You know, I mean, what if I had done this, or what if I had said this, or what if I had been there for this, what if I had done that?
And I wish I could tell your listeners that those will go away or that's something that you will overcome. But I think we will always look back and think we could have done more or we could have done this, we could have done that.
And I think that the real key for all of us is sort of breaking down this invisible barrier so that when things like this happen and you're in that lunch with your brother, we can do the things that organizations like Forefront, the suicide prevention group, show us are effective which is directly asking, "Are you thinking of committing suicide?"
And I think that even, you know, taking your brother to lunch and having that conversation and doing the best with what you had, I think that you and all the listeners who have had similar experiences should reflect on that and say, 'I was unprepared and that is an absolute tragedy. But at the same time I did everything that I knew to do and there's nothing else I could have done differently.'
But now our job is to make sure that other people are prepared because I got lucky. I got lucky that my older brother had the brilliant idea of talking to a child psychologist. I think that our job now is just to make sure that people are educated and informed so that they know what they can do that does have a direct positive result. Because you're right, I mean, these tragedies they don't need to happen. And I think that we can help make sure that they don't.
Bill Radke: I really appreciate you saying that. That's very compassionate and constructive to think of it that way. So thanks. Galen, another oversimplifying question: I don't want to assume that because you're here that life is all roses now, you know. But the listener, I think, wants to know how are you doing.
Galen: I'm doing really well. I have an amazing job. I got engaged back in December with an amazing fiance; planning a wedding is its own challenge. But I have found the things that make me happy and that helps out. Depression can be classified by many people in many different ways. The thing that I found about my depression in particular is that it's a self-defeating cycle. My depression wants me to to not hang out with people and not see people and that as a result of not doing that I get more depressed and I'm less inclined to go see people.
Arthur: I would say too, Bill, I mean ever since I met you at the Forefront dinner and really thought more deeply about all of this I feel that I've...
Bill: It was a suicide prevention group and we were both there and I was speaking.
Arthur: Yeah I feel like I've run into this concept that people have, and Galen hit on it, and you know I've suffered from depression as well. Our mom had depression all growing up and so I've felt the affects of it and there's this feeling you get when you're not feeling right that you don't deserve support that somehow something about this being a mental issue means you don't get the support that you should get.
I mean you can take the analogous situation if you're at the gym or you're playing sports and you push yourself too hard and so you know you sprained your ankle playing basketball. What's the first thing people are going to expect you to do? They expect you to go get crutches, go to the doctor. They'll expect you then to be sort of gimpy for a while as you're recovering. And they'll do things for you: They'll gladly grab your water off the table if you forgot to put it close enough, right? I mean there's no question. If you hurt yourself physically, you're on a path to recovery and you need some extra help.
The same is not true if you think about someone who you know is going through the death of a child or the death of a loved one or a divorce or veterans who come back or people in the LGBTQ community who are mentally being beaten down, you know. They're pushing themselves outside of their mental comfort zone and they end up hurting themselves.
There is nothing in our society that says they should go get some mental crutches, they should go to a mental doctor and you know what, I'll give them their metaphorical water when they need it. It's the opposite. It's this idea that this is your problem to deal with and I'm not here to help you.
I don't know if it's the inner fear that if we go to help someone with their mental issues we're actually just going to let loose all of our own mental issues. And so it becomes this mirror where you can look at someone and say well I don't play basketball so I'm not going to get a sprained ankle, but you can't look at someone and say I'm never going to lose a loved one. Or I'm never going to go through a divorce. I mean it's absolutely possible and so I don't know which piece of it we need to tackle more but I think that it all needs to be broken down because this invisible barrier to dialog, I think, is the biggest obstacle to us making a huge difference here.
Galen: I would agree. I think the biggest key there is that without having that ability to have that dialog you don't get the empathy, right. It's hard hard to look at someone who's having a hard day and know why. There's also, I think, the fear that if I start the conversation with them I have to become the psychologist. I have to become the doctor in that situation. No, it's just, you have to be there to pass the cup of water or help them when they when they fall down. Just do the human thing; be kind to other people around you. All those conversations are about is reminding people that you love them and that they are valued and that there's a reason why we want them around us.
Bill Radke: Arthur and Galen, I wish everybody had a brother like you guys. So, you know, thanks for helping bring us into that.
Arthur: Absolutely. And if I can just say, I mean, if I could leave the listeners with one thing it would be: I don't have the emotional capacity to be a therapist or to be a psychologist or to help people on a level that those people do. What I do have the capacity to do is simple things to show people that I care about that I love them. That really I think is your role as a person who is supporting somebody who's going through emotional difficulties.
Galen: This is one of the things our father says: "We all do the best we can with what we think we have." And one of the things I take from that is that the problems that you're experiencing: they're legitimate. They are real; don't downplay your own depression; don't downplay your own seriousness of the struggles you face as an individual and understand that the people around you want to help you and the people around you love you; they care about you. If you give them that opportunity, they'll help.
Bill Radke: Guys I'm glad you're both here to tell the story. Thank you for this.
Galen: Thanks, Bill.
Arthur: Thank you. Bill absolute pleasure to be here.
Bill Radke: And one more piece of information: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If that's all you know, you can start there: 800.273.8255.