Do you know how to handle repeated suicide threats? Princola Shields did not have to die. The 19-year-old mentally ill woman was serving a sentence at Indiana Women’s Prison when guards moved her into temporary confinement in a shower stall no bigger than a hall closet, according to the Indianapolis Star. For three hours she screamed for help, begging to know what she’d done wrong, then threatening to kill herself and yelling that she was dying. Guards allegedly told her to shut up and ignored her. She was later found hanging from the shower stall. Cleary, her suicide threats were not handled properly.
Shields made suicide threats frequently and had six suicide attempts on her record. While she was in treatment as a child, she told a doctor it was just a way to get attention. How should a suicide threat be handled then? Is there a right way how to handle repeated suicide threats?
Always Take a Repeated Suicide Threat Seriously
People have all kinds of ways of getting attention. However, very few people use the threat of suicide to get attention, which is why people should always take a suicide threat seriously. If the person is making the threat up, which is unlikely, they need to be taught that they are valued and will always be taken seriously (What Is a Value Judgement?). They also need to be taught healthier ways of seeking attention.
Psychologist David Miller told the Star that all suicide threats should be taken seriously, even the ones the patient says were made up. The Star reports:
When mental health professionals accept a child’s explanation of threatening suicide as a way to get attention, it “tends to minimize” the seriousness of the situation, said Miller, who is also an associate professor of school psychology at University at Albany, State University of New York, and president of the American Association of Suicidology. Anyone who talks about wanting to kill herself or himself is sending a clear message, he said, and the threat should always be treated seriously.
A lot of times when people don’t treat it seriously, that simply reinforces the individual’s viewpoint that they’re not valued.
What Happens When a Suicide Threat Isn’t Taken Seriously
I nearly died when my repeated suicide threats weren’t handled well, so this hits especially close to home.
While in the state hospital system, I was frequently suicidal (Understanding and helping the Suicidal Person). On one occasion, I told the staff I was suicidal and nothing happened. I showed them my note. I told them my plan. Nothing happened. I finally made an attempt, only to be discovered–at which point I said, indifferently, that I’d miscalculated how long it’d take to die and told them saving my life was the worst thing they could have done. The unit psychiatrist said, “We had another borderline on this unit and every other word out of her mouth was ‘suicide,’ so we just assumed you were the same way.”
I can not emphasize enough that a suicide threat, even a repeated suicide threat, should always be taken seriously. It’s far better to take a threat seriously and not have it be serious than to ignore a threat and have it be serious. People seldom make these threats up. And if, by a slim chance, they are, they’re making a cry for help that needs to be heard. The consequences of not taking a threat seriously are simply too great to risk.
How to Handle Repeated Suicide Threats
The most important thing you can say to someone who is suicidal is, “I value your life and want to help you. What can I do?”
Other important things include:
- “You must be in a lot of pain to feel that way. How can I help?”
- “Thank you for sharing that with me; you were very brave. What can I do to help?”
- “You say you feel like killing yourself to get the pain to stop. What other options do you have and how can I help you find them?”
Most suicidal people don’t want to die–they just want the pain to stop and think that death is the best way for that to happen (Avoid Suicide by Looking Forward to the Little Things).
A suicide threat should always be taken seriously because it is so rarely made up. Repeated suicide threats are symptomatic of a severe mental illness, in which case a person needs treatment, not isolation and punishment. That’s how to handle repeated suicide threats–take the person seriously, tell them you value them, and help them to find other coping skills in therapy.