Where is this coming from? As far as I can tell "Suicidal people aren't rational" is mostly meme. Suicidal people aren't operating at anywhere near full capacity is much closer. Of the suicidal folks I've known they've all been less sensitive/more tired rather than emotional. I'll add that it's a harmful meme because it stops people seeking help because they don't think anyone will take them seriously (which is a pretty accurate generalisation.)

It's coming from the word of psychologists who've made depression the focus of their study, from my own experience with suicidal contemplations, and that of all the suicidal people I've dealt with.

Suicidal people are not necessarily histrionic; more often (if they're legitimately suicidal) they are, as you said, numb, and have a muted affect. But that doesn't mean that their rationality isn't being affected. I know a person who has spiraled deeper and deeper into depression since I first met her, and been able to see her go from a particularly sharp witted person with whom I could discuss pretty much anything to someone who, while not unintelligent, has little energy to make use of her mental faculties and makes consistently irrational decisions.

It's important to take suicidal people seriously, but also to keep in mind that they're in a particularly vulnerable state, and "taking someone seriously" has very different connotations outside the LW social cluster, where we have social norms that encourage active argument, don't frame correcting others as a status challenge, etc. If a person who's contemplating suicide is talking to you, listen. People who really listen to what you have to say, who're completely receptive and aren't impatiently waiting for a convenient place where they can turn the conversation the way they want are in much shorter supply than people who'll talk at you, particularly when you're socially isolated as many suicidal people are. "Listen, be supportive, don't argue" is not an incitement not to take someone seriously. There should be no point where you feel like you're following a bad script, because you should be listening and responding in as sincere a way as you can without being confrontational.

What suicidal people are usually in need of is a sympathetic, supportive social connection, not someone who'll talk at or argue with them. This is where a lot of people fail in dealing with suicidal people; they see a "protocol wall" as you put it, usually panic, and try and run through a script of things they're "supposed" to say, and so the suicidal person doesn't feel like they've managed to effectively communicate, they've just been talked at.

"has little energy to make use of her mental faculties and makes consistently irrational decisions."

Irrational is really the wrong word for decisions that are poorly made because one lacks the energy to make them. And even worse for decisions that look poorly made because all the options which would be rational for someone with normal energy are impossible or vastly more costly (to the point where they are no longer rational) for someone without.

I assume these are the types of decisions you're talking about.

Maybe "listen, be supportive, don'... (read more)

How would you talk a stranger off the ledge?

by MoreOn 1 min read23rd Jan 201297 comments


Last month, two people far at the periphery of my social circles have threatened suicide. Seems like a sign for me to learn some ledge-fu.

I reviewed the stuff I'd learned back in high school ("Listen." "Be supportive." "Don't argue." "Etc etc etc.") I have trouble believing that this would work outside of movieland, especially on strangers. More so, in person I'm an awkward, fidgeting introvert---the impact of everything I say is thus diminished, and I sound very insincere or clinical, like I'm following a bad movie script, when I say anything like, "You are not alone in this. I’m here for you." or "How can I best support you right now?" I doubt that this would sound any better in writing.

I suppose I could split my question into two related ones: what would you say to a person threatening to commit suicide, 1. in person, and 2. in an email?

I'm looking for out-of-the-box ideas that don't rely on charisma or compassion shining through. Personally, if I ever need to talk myself out of suicidal thoughts, I apply the "bum comparison principle": if my life is so crummy that I'm willing to commit suicide, then I should be willing to just walk out on everything I value and drift off in a random direction, survive by dine-and-dashing out of cheap restaurants and wash dishes if I get caught, maybe take odd jobs or hitchhike or gather roots and berries or blog from public libraries. I don't see this possibility in a negative light, and yet I still haven't done it. To me, it means that however bad my life may seem, I'm still too attached to it to walk out; therefore, suicide isn't on the menu.

People have different reasons to want suicide, and I understand that what works for me with my first world problems probably won't work for a person who is in too much physical pain from an incurable disease. To the best of my knowledge, the two people I mentioned earlier are both unskilled laborers who had lost their jobs, one of them so long ago that he's no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. I don't think I'll meet these particular people again, but I'd appreciate everyone's thoughts on what I could've said if my brain hadn't frozen.