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Help for Troubled SoulsJune 13, 2014
Yet another young person has taken his life in the islands where we live. A family member said no one suspected he was troubled; even his girlfriend believed he was happy. When we hear of these things, and especially when it happens in our own family, feelings of helplessness naturally arise. People who commit suicide leave behind a wake of terrible grief, guilt, anger and sorrow. We wonder, "What could or should I have done?" No one is responsible for another committing suicide, and no one believes that. The truth is we have no control. We only have influence.
As a therapist in a mental health clinic years ago, I was saddened by how many teens we saw who had attempted suicide. One day I went to the head psychiatrist and asked him, "Why don't we have a program for suicide prevention?" He said, "Go for it, Linda. Why don't you come up with one?" Reflecting on the suicidal adults and teens I was seeing, I noticed two seemingly divergent patterns. First, each person was unique. Each had a different motive, a different story. There was no identifiable predictor. Some were angry after being rejected in a romance, some were ill and tired of living. Some took an accidental drug overdose. Second, there was one consistent pattern: they had had no one to talk to. No one who would really listen and understand, or take them seriously. They felt isolated, even if surrounded by family. I brought in family members and asked them what had been going on before the suicide attempt. What emerged was that there was a huge cavernous gap in communication. Sometimes violence had erupted between parents and teens to the point where the teen wanted to hurt them back, and what more dramatic way is there than death? Sometimes, the individual was a loner and no matter how hard loved ones tried to reach out or understand them, they kept their impenetrable isolation wrapped around them like a cloak of protection.
So I decided to try something new with a focus on teens and their parents. Teens received one-on-one counseling as well as family sessions. I also created a course for parents on communication – how to talk and above all how to listen, how to companion. Kate was a beautiful 15 year old who had been estranged from her parents before attempting suicide. She began to thrive and soon we tapered off her sessions. I asked her, "Kate, of all the things we did, what made the biggest difference?" "Well," she said, blushing, "I do like seeing you but it was that course. I don't know what you did to my parents but they are so different. It's like a miracle. Now we can talk. Nobody blows up. We get along." Her smile was radiant.
Parents came to the course twice a week for six weeks. They learned how to stop preaching and start listening, stop fixing and advising and instead asked perceptive cup emptying questions to help their children figure things out themselves. They learned simple ways to get kids who never talked to start talking, spent fun time with them, and gave up criticising, instead using virtues words of appreciation when they noticed their child being helpful, or friendly, or courageous, or kind. They expected more responsibility and set up clear boundaries for their house rules. In most cases, it made the difference between life and death.
The program was adopted in many mental health centres and became a regular feature of treatment. Anything we can do to heal our relationships, especially by listening with compassion, can often break through the deadly isolation of the lonely and the desperate. It could well lead to getting the professional help that they need.