Often, we are preoccupied with our responsibilities at work or at school and fail to notice the changes in the people around us. At times, we fear approaching the topic of self-harm and suicide because we are uncertain of what to do next, or what may be the “right” response to “Yes, I am thinking of killing myself”. Sometimes, it takes that little courage to genuinely care for another that can make a whole difference.
I had the opportunity to speak to Khai, a final year student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic about his experience standing by his buddy, Ed at his lowest point back when they were in Secondary 3.
Open our eyes. There are moments in life where we become preoccupied with rushing reports, sales figures, and examinations; and we assume that our colleagues and classmates are facing the exact same challenge and are coping with it just fine - just like us. Amidst everything that is going on around us, we have the tendency to look past signs that may seem out of the ordinary.
Despite being busy with the final year exam preparations back in 2014, Khai noticed something amiss when Ed has been absent from class for days and when Ed appeared in class, he would be called into the school counsellor’s office. Other red flags included sudden changes in behaviours and bandages around Ed’s arms. When asked, Ed was hesitant to share and brushed the topic off. Khai was however undefeated when faced with the refusal and continued to show his concern for his buddy’s well-being.
When Khai finally found out that Ed was contemplating suicide for some time, he was in shock. Beyond just experiencing shock, Khai was devastated about the news as he did not expect his buddy to be struggling in silence, unbeknownst to anyone close to him.
In such instances, we would often ask “Why?” – a question to hopefully clarify the feeling of being at a loss. At the same time, a myriad of emotions can overwhelm concerned individuals as we search for ways to show our concern and support. We have the tendency to cast doubt on the strength of the relationship and start to put blame on ourselves. “Have I not done enough?” “Why didn’t he come to us?” “Why didn’t I notice it earlier?” – These questions puts blame on the self for not preventing the situation from happening.
Unfrazzled by the judgement. Fingers will point, discouraging words will follow. When observers themselves are not involved in these circumstances, it is easy to pass judgements and make nasty comments about the situation - with the intention to belittle the severity and significance of the problem to the individual. Hearing such ugly comments like “don’t waste time already” and “you’re just weak” first hand, Khai felt that “Not everyone understands the challenges these people face and it isn’t as simple as just ending it all”. Not everyone who expresses suicide ideation yearns attention, it can be a silent call for help.
Something not everyone understands is the feeling of ambivalence toward suicide. Individuals in crisis have the desire to end the pain they are facing, but not necessarily their lives. Often our vision may be blurred to any other options when we are in a state of utter distress; and at times of desperation, we may fixate on the only option that we have total control of – our own lives.
Negative comments at this juncture does little to help, but instead acts as fuel to the immense negative emotions and self-doubt in the individual.
It’s not us versus them. We often avoid speaking because of the fear that “what if I say something wrong and it triggers them instead?”. We tend to “give them space” as we fear we might be too intruding into their personal lives. But how long will this period last? We unconsciously create an invisible barrier from ourselves, which is visible to people who are feeling lonely and helpless. However, Khai knew that it was then that his group of friends had to build a stronger support network around Ed. He shared that apart from professional help, a group of close friends would spend more time with Ed. Despite being clueless about what suicide is, and not being equipped with the skills to approach someone contemplating suicide, Khai and his group of friends knew one thing for sure – Ed was their buddy and nothing else mattered.
“We did not want to treat him as if he’s different because of what is happening .. (and) would want to listen to whatever he had to share” commented Khai. With this in mind, the group of friends met up regularly, at times even late into the night to provide Ed with a sense of belonging to the group. They were adamant about being there for one another to emphasise that they are in this together supporting one another. More essentially, they wanted to create a safe space for Ed to share about his struggles and they would just listen.
Feeling lonely and being helpless can stem from believing that one does not have anyone close enough to them or whom they feel they can trust sufficiently. The fear of being judged or reprimanded may reinforce the negativity in them and lead to thoughts of suicide as the only way out.
When asked what one lesson he learnt from this episode is, Khai shared with us that if we let our uncertainties influence our decision to reach out and listen to the people around us, we will all feel even lonelier.
Khai hopes that by sharing his experience, we can all be more accepting of and more empathetic to those who may be fighting their own internal struggles, as we all strive to be less judgemental and more caring to one another instead. He adds “Be there for them and be patient. Know that their journey to recovery is a long one but it starts when someone shows care and support to them.”
The road to recovery out of a crisis can be long and tiring. But Ed’s journey was made more assuring with the support from both his mother and his buddies even till today. Both Khai and Ed are expecting to graduate from their polytechnic studies in April 2019.
* This blog post was produced with the consent of the contributor. Pseudo names are used to keep all parties anonymous.*
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