I was only 12 years-old the first time a friend of mine came to me to talk about her suicidal thoughts. Jenna* rolled up the sleeves to her sweatshirt to display fresh cut marks on her forearm. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I gave her a huge hug and we talked for hours in my bedroom. We talked about where these thoughts were coming from. We talked about the of experiencing bullying had on both of our lives.
And we talked about how she still had so much to live for.
The next morning, I went to the school counselor and told her that I was scared for my friend but I also didn’t want to “out” her. The counselor told me to ask my friend if she would be willing to come in for a session with me, so I did. Jenna got so mad at me that I spoke to an adult about her situation, even though I didn’t disclose her identity to the counselor.
As someone who has dealt with depression from a young age myself, I understand how dark it can get in your own being. Especially if you feel isolated, like so many young LGBTQ people do. With September being Suicide Prevention Month, I think it’s important that we keep the dialogue open about how to support people—especially LGBTQ people.
According to the CDC rate of suicide attempts is 4 times greater for LGB youth and 2 times greater for questioning youth than that of straight youth. And in a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25 (The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey).
Our young people clearly need help. Even though acceptance and support for young queer and trans people is increasing, there are so many issues behind the scenes that we don’t witness. Bullying in school, parental neglect, teachers not providing adequate support to LGBTQ students.
When I worked at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, we saw so many young LGBTQ people struggle because they were the only out person at their school. In rural America, there isn’t a lot of support for queer and trans youth. Young people are currently paving the way to set these LGBTQ affirming policies in place. But even activism can feel isolating when you have no support. If you can’t find an LGBTQ center near you, then contact The Trevor Project through one of their many platforms (text, call, email, chat-room).
If you see these things happening to a friend or loved one, you can help them. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are people out there who want to support and love you.
In this interview, GO speaks with Ashby Dodge, the Clinical Director over at The Trevor Project to learn more about how to support people who are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.
1. Take warning signs seriously.
“You always want to take warning signs seriously,” Dodge says. “If you see those signs, check in with your friend and tell them you’re worried about them. Expressing concern while empowering them to know they have support gives them control and let’s them know you’re there for them.”
Often times people feel helpless to do anything for their friends who are suffering from suicidal thoughts. But just one supportive person can decrease an LGBTQ youths likelihood of a suicide attempt by 30%. You can help decrease isolation and hopelessness for this friend just by offering support.
Here are some warning signs The Trevor Project recognizes and advises us to look out for in youth.
- Not caring about their future: “It won’t matter soon anyway.”
- Saying goodbye to important people: “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I’ll miss you.”
- Talking about feeling suicidal: “Life is so hard. Lately, I’ve felt like ending it all.”
- Eating or sleeping more or less than usual
- Planning for death by writing a will or letter
- Admiring people who have died by suicide
- Losing interest in their favorite things to do
- Giving away their most valuable possessions
2. Use direct communication.
While Dodge recognizes that suicide can be a scary topic to approach and talk about with your friend, it’s so important to be direct and ask them very specific questions.
“Oftentimes, people are worried to ask direct questions like ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ because they fear they wouldn’t know what to do if their friend says yes. So they don’t ask directly. Using direct language shows your loved one that you’re not afraid and you’re willing to sit with them,” Dodge tells GO. “Someone sharing their feelings and thoughts about suicide decreases their isolation and their chance of attempting suicide.”
Dodge shared with us some questions that you can ask:
- Are you thinking about killing yourself/suicide?
- Have you thought about how you might do it?
- Do you have a plan to attempt suicide?
- Have you ever felt like this before?
- If yes, follow up with: What worked in the past to get through this? Are those practices worth trying again?
3. Listen, accept and acknowledge.
“Find out as much information as you can, without judgment. Listen to what they’re saying, accept it. Acknowledge that’s where they are at right now,” Dodge advises.
There are varying degrees of depression, and they may or may not be suicidal. By listening to what they’re going through and acknowledging how real those feelings are—you are showing them that they have hope.
“As a loved one, be open to sitting with them in their feelings. Find empathy in your communication,” Dodge tells GO. “Connect with them and build on their strengths. If they’ve thought about suicide before, talk about what got them through these feelings in the past. Maybe try some of those tactics with them.”
4. Empower them to try to get help.
“It’s important to find out if they are considering and have a plan to act on these thoughts,” Dodge explains. “You want to get them thinking about someone they can go to for help, besides you. Whether a school counselor, parent, teacher or one of The Trevor Project’s hotlines.”
When it comes to continuing on a path of self-care after suicidal thoughts, it’s important to keep engaging with loved ones. Dodge says it’s imperative to make sure not to isolate. “A lot of suicidal behavior stems from a social and cultural environment, The numbers aren’t higher for LGBTQ people just because. It has to do with increased marginalization. Engaging with supportive friends and family can help. Finding a safe and affirming space in school, like a GSA or other LGBTQ group, can help.”
Dodge even suggests the “TrevorSpace,” a platform The Trevor Project has built to provide a safe space online for LGBTQ youth. “TrevorSpace is an online peer support community, if you’re within our age demographic you can register to be a member. It’s a monitored site where young LGBTQ people can talk about anything with their peers, even share photos. It’s great because you can be located anywhere and still have an LGBTQ community.”
5. Continue to check in with them.
“Try not to leave them alone in the hours after they’ve told you about their suicidal thoughts,” Dodge reiterates.
If you can get them engaging with The Trevor Project or someone else who can help, that’s the best next step. Then when you have to leave, you know they have access to resources other than you.
Be sure to continue to check in on your friend. Even if it feels like they’re pushing you away, much like my friend Jenna did. They may be doing so out of fear or embarrassment. Continue to send them loving texts, phone calls and in person check-ins. Those moments and messages can make a big difference in letting someone know that you’ll be there for them. That they have support and love. It lets them know that they matter in this big, scary world. And sometimes we just need one person to remind us that we’re valued and loved.
If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, you can call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. To access the Crisis Text Line, text HOME to 741741.