Note: I wrote this letter to my friend Greg, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Any of us might know someone at risk of suicide, though, and there are a fistful of things you can know which might help you both through that situation.
It feels weird to be offering—no, imposing on you with—advice, but helping people not commit suicide is one of the few life-and-death matters I have some experience in. I’ve spent a few nights literally wrestling with people who were trying to kill themselves (trying to bash their heads on stone, or throw themselves out windows, or—and this sounds absurd now, but he was sincerely trying—to drown himself in a toilet), and probably a dozen or more nights just talking with people to try to avoid that crisis moment. And now that I’m no longer in the midst of a big at-risk population (college students) and you are (combat veterans, and people with guns), I’m going to pass on some knowledge. This is stuff I was trained on and stuff that I’ve put into practice. The Army has a 94-page pamphlet on this, but there are four things you can know and do that save lives. Please, share it forward. The odds are horrifyingly high that you or someone you know will need this.
1: Suicide delayed is suicide prevented. This is hugely important to remember. You’re not going to solve a guy’s problems by talking to him. He’s not going to solve his problems talking to you. That’s ok. Suicide survivors by an overwhelming majority agree that the crisis they were in was temporary, and it is a minority of suicide survivors who even attempt again. Prevent an impulsive and irretrievable decision:
2: Hold onto their guns. It may well be true that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but it is definitely true that good guys with guns far too often stop themselves. Offer to do this—ok, beg, plead, cajole, if you want to help. You’re not confiscating the things; you’re holding on to them so your buddy doesn’t do anything rash. Also, remember, your pro-gun credentials are solid—you can (and for god’s sake you’re saving somebody’s life—you should) lean on this to remind people that you are ready to give them back. This is really hard, therefore:
3: Prepare and practice. Tell your friends ahead of time, “If I’m ever in a bad way, I want you to hold onto my guns, and I hope you’ll do the same for me.” And practice—say this stuff out loud, it’s not easy—saying, “Joe, I’m worried about you. I can hold onto your guns this week. If you want to go hunting give me a call.” Practice saying to someone—literally, say the words out loud, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” This is hard stuff.
4: It’s okay that you’re not a professional. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to help your buddy. Unless you’re dealing with somebody who’s literally standing on a ledge, or pointing a gun at himself, then anything you can say or do with that person will help. So talk, spend time with the guy, go to the movies, go to the gym, go for food, go for coffee, rake leaves, mow the lawn, build a deck… what the fuck ever. Just spend time together.Thelma and I spent two weeks basically bringing a friend along anytime we were going out, and half the time when we were home. We weren’t talking all the time, we weren’t trying to solve the problems or talk through them, we were all just being there.
You’ve dealt with more serious shit than I can imagine; you’ve got the strength and the standing with your friends to handle this. And it’s something that you can be prepared for.