• Scott R. Mote, Esq.

It is time to start asking uncomfortable questions: How to help someone who might be suicidal

By Scott R. Mote, Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program


Last year, the Texas and Pennsylvania Lawyers Assistance Programs created a video that shows how lawyers and others are affected by suicide. In the video, a lawyer speaks about a friend who attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge when he was 17, but he survived, and he lived to tell his story. The day he decided to die, he was sobbing. He saw his father, while crying, and he hugged his father for the last time, or so he thought. He got on a bus—still crying—and nobody asked him if he was ok. He got to the bridge, still sobbing, and instead of asking him if he was ok, a woman asked him to take her picture. He took her picture, and then he jumped. He said that if one person would have asked him if he was ok, he would not have jumped. The second he jumped, he regretted it. He said that the saddest thing in the four seconds it took him to hit the water was that he was going to die and his family did not know that he wanted to live.


Why was it that not one person asked this young man if he was ok? I believe there are several reasons why we do not stop and ask. We were taught to mind our own business. We do not want to get involved. We are too busy. We are afraid of legal implications. We do not know how to help or what to say. We respect that person’s privacy. We do not want to cross a boundary. It is imperative that we stop minding our own business and learn how to ask uncomfortable questions. Asking a person “Are you ok?” or “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” shows the person that you cared enough to ask. Most people do not want to die; they just want their pain to end, but they do not know how to get help or are afraid to ask for help. By asking these uncomfortable questions, you could save a life.


Suicide is serious. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States (https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20060864), and legal professionals are not immune. We have a responsibility to help people, and it is time that we start learning the warning signs and asking others if they are ok if we believe that they are struggling.


Warning signs

If you see a person exhibiting any of the following behaviors, it is time to ask if they are ok.

  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly

  • Sleeping too little or too much

  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves

  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

  • Extreme mood swings

Examples of what legal professionals might say if they are contemplating suicide:

  • “I hate being a lawyer. Sometimes I just want to jump off a building.”

  • “Nothing will ever change for me. I will always be a failure.”

  • “My family/law practice will be much better off without me. I’m such a burden.”

  • “I have no reason to live.”

  • “I don’t like being a judge, but I’m trapped and I cannot change it.”

What to do

If you find that you are in a situation where you suspect that a person is contemplating suicide, there are steps you can take to help them.


The field of suicide prevention suggests the following five action steps that are supported by evidence for communicating with someone who may be suicidal.


Ask

If a person opens up to you and tells you what is wrong, just listen. Do not try to fix their problems. Sometimes a stressed/depressed/anxious person just needs to let it out. Listen and ask how you can help. It’s ok to ask the person if they are having suicidal thoughts. Some people believe that if they ask that question, that they are putting the idea of suicide in the other person’s mind, but that is not true. Rather, it makes the person pause for a moment to think about the severity of their state of mind. “If someone asks me if I’m ok, then I must not be doing ok because they noticed that I’m not being myself.”


Be there

Being there for a person in a time of crisis can be life-saving. This can be in their physical presence or letting them know that you are a phone call away. Listening to the person vent or cry is being there for them. If you are unable to be there, find others who are willing to be there in your absence. Do not commit to anything that you are unable to do. This could make the person feel more isolated if you do not keep your word.


Keep them safe

Try to determine all you can about the person’s mental health history and status. Has the person tried this in the past? Does the person know by what means they will go through with it? If a person already has a plan in place, the risk of them committing suicide is much higher. If you can, remove all access to harmful items, such as drugs, alcohol or weapons.


Help them connect

Let them know that there are plenty of helpful resources for them.


988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

988 has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that routes callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.


Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program

www.ohiolap.org

800-348-4343

The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) helps lawyers, judges and law students cope with the stresses of the legal profession. OLAP has saved hundreds of lives and families. OLAP helps those in the legal profession with depression, mental health disorders, burnout, substance use disorders, anxiety, gambling disorders, and more. It is difficult to ask for help when you are struggling, but asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. OLAP understands your concerns about privacy, which is why OLAP is governed by strong rules of confidentiality.


Judicial Advisory Group

The Judicial Advisory Group (JAG) is a peer-based confidential assistance group that helps judges and magistrates with personal and professional issues. For more information, go to www.ohiolap.org/judges or call (800) 348-4343.


Follow up

Make sure you follow up with a person who is thinking about suicide. You can send a message, send a text, or call them. See if there is anything else you can do to support them. Following up increases feelings of connectedness and can potentially reduce their risk for suicide.


Remember: If a person decides to take their own life, it is not your fault. You did not make the person take this action. Dying by suicide is that person’s choice and no matter how much you tried to stop them or help them, it is not your fault.


The stigma

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma that comes along with people who have mental health issues, which leads to many negative effects for a person who is contemplating suicide. Mental health stigma occurs when someone views you in a negative way because you have an illness that is thought to be a disadvantage. Stigma can lead to discrimination. Harmful effects of stigma can lead to:

  • A person refusing to seek help or treatment

  • Family, friends, co-workers or others who don’t understand

  • And the belief that you'll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation

Fortunately, people are going public with their stories so that others can learn that it is possible to recover from mental health challenges, even suicidal thoughts. Hopefully this helps break the stigma of mental health disorders.


As a legal professional, your job is to help people. The next time you see a co-worker, friend, family member or stranger in distress, I encourage you to ask if they are ok. Your question might lead them to seek help so they can live to tell their stories, which, in turn, will help others know that they will survive.


Resources


988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

988 is the new three-digit dialing code that routes callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.


Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program

www.ohiolap.org

800-348-4343

The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program (OLAP) helps lawyers, judges and law students cope with the stresses of the legal profession. We have saved hundreds of lives and families. We treat depression, mental health disorders, burnout, substance use disorders, anxiety, gambling disorders, and more. We know that it is difficult to ask for help when you are struggling, but asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. We also understand your concerns about privacy, which is why OLAP is governed by strong rules of confidentiality.


Judicial Advisory Group

The Judicial Advisory Group (JAG) is a peer-based confidential assistance group that helps judges and magistrates with personal and professional issues. For more information, go to www.ohiolap.org/judges or call (800) 348-4343.




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