Friends’ Joke Could Be a Cry For Help


(The Vancouver Sun, June 10, 2002)

Q: Hi, I have a friend I am very worried about. Sometimes she jokingly says she wants to kill herself. It is hard to know if she really means it or not. I know she has attempted suicide before, but she assures me that it is all in the past and I better not tell anyone. I’m not sure what to do. She doesn’t seem herself. It is really starting to scare me. What should I do?
C. B., Burnaby, B.C.

Teresa: I am very glad you wrote. She is lucky to have such a caring and concerned friend. You are right to be worried. Joking about suicide, having a history of previous attempts, and not seeming herself are all serious warning signs of suicidal behavior. The first thing you need to do is tell an adult you trust right away. Do not wait. Many teens are afraid to tell someone in case their friend gets mad at them. Your friend needs help and she may be indirectly trying to tell you that. Joking about suicide is often a person’s way of hinting they are thinking about it without actually having to come right out and say so. The joke allows them to test a response while providing a safety net. If the person they are talking to says something like “why would you want to do something stupid like that?” they can safely respond they were only joking around. If your friend ends up temporarily mad at you for telling someone, think of it this way- better to have a friend temporarily mad at you than permanently not around. According to Canadian Statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15-24. Males are 3 times more likely to actualize suicide attempts due to their choice of irreversible methods. Studies also tell us males are much less likely to ask for help. Females on the other hand, have 3 times as many suicide attempts. In year 2000, the B.C. Coroner reported 114 people ages 12-29 killed them selves in B.C. alone. Nearly all of them in their own way tried to tell someone what they were planning. Here is a list of warning signs to watch out for:

  • arked behavioral changes. The person just doesn’t seem them selves. This may mean anything from an ordinarily outgoing person seeming more quiet and withdrawn, to an ordinarily quiet person seeming aggressive and acting out.
  • Signs of depression. The person may have a general sense of feeling helpless and hopeless. They may talk about being disappointed about life. They feel like nothing will ever get better.
  • Suicidal Ideation. Sometimes people will almost seem to romanticize suicide. Any talk of suicide including hinting, joking, or blatant disclosure needs to be taken seriously.
  • Prior attempts. Studies tell us unless the reason for the previous attempt has been resolved there is still great risk.
  • Self Harm. This includes self mutilation as well as risky behavior and careless regard for their personal safety.
  • Feelings of social isolation.
  • Preparations for death. Often people will not so subtly prepare for dying. They may say goodbye, give prized possessions away, write a will, or resolve unfinished business.
  • Writing about feeling suicidal. This may include diary entries, or even writing about their feelings in chat rooms.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.

If you are concerned about someone you know, tell an adult you trust to do something. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of safety by a person who seemed suicidal suddenly seeming fine again. Often a person who is conflicted about suicide will be strangely calm and more in control when they have formulated a decision and a plan on how to kill them selves. They may be at the greatest risk at this time. Get the person help. Listen without being judgmental or giving advice. Ask them directly if they are thinking about killing themselves. This may sound harsh but is often a huge relief to a person thinking about it but not sure how to tell someone. Don’t make promises – especially to not tell. However difficult try not to seem shocked. The person will need to feel it was safe to tell you. For more information or to get help call the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Center for B.C. at #604-872-3311. If you are in the Sea to Sky Corridor, Sunshine Coast, or Powell River area the toll free number is #1-866-661-3311. For other areas, refer to the white pages of your phone book under Crisis Center. Finally, if you are a parent wanting your teen to receive information on how to recognize signs of suicide, get help, or cope with stress the Crisis Center has powerful, free workshops facilitated in schools. They book up by October so call your school counselor and ask them to book a workshop by contacting Sonja Reisdorf the Program Director for Community Education at #604-872-1811. This column was written with the gratefully accepted and generously offered consultation of Sonja Reisdorf of the Crisis Center.