When small talk doesn’t save a life

A couple of days ago, my Twitter timeline included reference to a Mental Elf blog on an article describing the role of passing strangers preventing suicide in public spaces. In this blogpost, I want to comment on the article. I deal with difficult and potentially upsetting themes. What I say below is also likely to be very controversial.

Before I start, I would like to re-tell a story I told in one of my early blogposts. It’s about my research which involved interviewing men in depression. One day as many as many as three men agreed to be interviewed. I was over the moon – I had much difficulty finding informants. I had three interviews, did them one after the other! The interviews were great, all lasted over an hour, the men were talking about extremely difficult things, all cried during the interview. All thanked me for listening.

But I also felt that they had offloaded all the sadness, misery, unhappiness on me and I was crumbling. My mood was going down, headlong. I needed to talk to someone and fast, as I really wanted to find a tree and hang myself (I am not exaggerating here). All this sadness was crushing me. Really. And so, I went up to the ward where I was based, had a long conversation with a wonderful shrink. She helped me a lot and suggested we should meet more often. We did, I survived. And I shall always be grateful to Dr Jola Robak, one of the best psychiatrists I have met in my life.

This was the moment when I realised that I was completely unprepared for those interviews. I was already an experienced interviewer at the time, but I had never interviewed people in such misery. I had no defences; I simply took it all on. Except I was lucky, I had access to excellent support, I was helped, I was cared for. And so, when I read the abstract of the article, I linked above in which the authors write:

Members of the public need to be encouraged to recognise and reach out to those who may be at risk of suicide in public locations, but should be prepared for a prolonged and intense encounter that may leave them with troubling emotions.

I want to scream: are you for bloody real? Troubling emotions? I was effing suicidal and that was just after three interviews after which the interviewees smiled and thanked me for my help. Alternatively, the Samaritans refer to ‘my’ feeling suicidal as ‘feeling emotional’. That’s really the understatement of the century.

And here is my problem. Whenever I read the stories about strangers saving lives with small talk, I always read stories of success. The brave and empathic John saved the desperate Elizabeth, or the amazing Jane saves the life of poor Jack who afterwards realised that life was worth living. And I genuinely do applaud the notional John and Jane, but I keep wondering about all those poor souls who were not so lucky. No, not those who were not saved, those who didn’t manage to save.

You see, I keep wondering about the situations in which you are not so successful. You know, you do the small talk and the person you engage with it, simply ignores it and jumps under the train anyway. Perhaps making a comment about your help? Perhaps looking you straight in the eye. What happens then? Will the upshot be ‘troubling emotions’? Or are you going to be crushed by the guilt of not being good enough at saving? Or feel guilty that you survived, that you didn’t take the extra step. Perhaps you could have said something more, you could have grabbed them, you could have….I keep wondering about the stories of those people and none are forthcoming.

The story of my interview, unique as it is, shows what the helping professions have known forever. Helping people is difficult. By helping people, you take on the burden of their suffering and you must know how to stay safe. For if you’re unprepared, it can crush you. This is, indeed, why psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists all receive significant training in how to help others in distress. And this is also why, I truly believe that I was very lucky to survive the day with three interviews.

Coming face to face with raw misery, with utter and complete desperation is way more difficult than the stories of passers-by preventing suicide suggest. And they must never be dismissed as troubling emotions or feeling emotional. No, you should tell people they may get suicidal, that the burden they take upon themselves can be dangerous to them. I know, I’ve been there.

But there is another aspect of ‘encouraging people reach out’. Something that I struggle with myself. You see, I genuinely don’t know what I would do. I wish I could say that I would jump to the rescue. I wish I could say I will notice, I will calmly come up, and my words will be like soothing balm. But I don’t know. And what scares the living daylights out of me is how I will feel afterwards. As I am encouraged (or is it really pressured?) to reach out, to help, to make a move, I keep thinking about what happens when I don’t. Will I feel as guilty as when not trying hard enough? Will I think that I am worthless, a woose, half the man I am supposed to be (I wish someone engaged with how gendered such discussions and situations are)? Will I need help myself? For how long (I’m not even starting with the money needed to pay for it)?

So, what’s the solution? Should we all just ignore someone walking up to the platform ready to jump under the train? No, I am not saying that at all. What I am saying, however, is that first and foremost we have a duty to be safe. That’s the basis of all rescue – make sure you are safe. And any ‘encouragement’ for reaching out should be much clearer about the risks involved. I also don’t want to be guilt-tripped into something that might eventually put me in harm’s way.

I fully understand that what I am writing about seems harsh. I also know that again I am the awkward sod who is not enthusiastic about things. But I am writing out the experience of ‘helping’, of trying to shoulder the weight of someone’s suffering and in a situation way less dramatic than what’s at stake in making small talk save lives. My experience literally almost killed me. I don’t want to go there again. And I would like someone to look out for me when I don’t jump, when I say nothing. I would like someone to (say they) understand that I am scared of saying a word.

 

3 Comments
  1. I agree – this is a dangerous proposal given most people are ill-equipped to deal with their own emotional turmoil, let alone anyone else’s in addition to that. Without properly teaching people skill to be able to sit with their own emotions, even when they’re intense & uncomfortable, & then teaching them to sit with someone else’s, too, I fear this has the potential to inflict trauma on people when it goes wrong.

    I mean, I understand why they’re suggesting people do it – in some cases, it could be a lifesaving measure, but you’re right to point out the flip-side of that positive potential.

    If they were willing to fund something like Emotional CPR training for people before tasking them with such a momentous task, in the event that they happen to be present when someone is publicly suicidal, I think it could work far better, but let’s be serious, that’s far to deep an investment to be feasible on such a broad scale… it would be nice though.

    Thanks for sharing your concerns about this – they’re definitely valid ones.

  2. There is nothing wrong with being too shy to pay for an old lady at the pharmacy if you give a bit of money to another old person in need in your family or to a trusted charity.
    Idem for saving someone from committing suicide *. You might leave the small talk to an extrovert but your book on male suicide has certainly already save some men’s lives. You can’t help someone ready to jump from a bridge but you prevent suicides in another way. Few people can write books like yours but many can prevent suicide by helping a friend or a neighbour in need of company or whatever one can offer.
    *Yes, I used committed suicide purposely to remind you of your previous good work for those who are made to feel guilty by the wokerati for using it.

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