Brian Stefan on Suicide: Compassion and Empathy are the Paths Toward Healing
1 million people worldwide die by suicide every year. It’s the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 years old, and in the US, 47,000 in the US take their life by suicide each year. 1.2 million people attempt.
Brian Stefan is a former intelligence analyst with the FBI’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center. He’s worked with the mayor of Los Angeles’ Crisis Response Team and Suicide Response Team. He has facilitated support groups for adults who are bereaved and for those who have attempted suicide. He’s currently developing a curriculum for gatekeepers to make suicide prevention more accessible for everyone.
He got involved in the Suicide Prevention Center as a crisis counselor after he lost a friend to suicide. At that time, he didn’t really understand that much about suicide other than what he had learned from TV and movies. As he grieved, he knew that he wanted to learn about it. Along the way, he discovered that there were opportunities for people to volunteer and talk to people on a crisis hotline.
When Brian started to learn more about suicide, he discovered that talking and being honest about it is the best path toward healing. While he wishes that his friend hadn’t died, he feels honored that he is able to do something with his pain and loss — help others work through their own suffering.
This was the first podcast episode I ever did. Frankly, the reason why I wanted to start a podcast around taboos was because of the few years I spent volunteering on the suicide crisis line.
I realized that I needed to do more, and could do more to help people feel connected to themselves and to others. I learned many lessons about human suffering while speaking with people who were deciding whether to stay on the planet or not. But, the number one takeaway was: we must have a safe space to talk about our dark thoughts, or what we consider taboos.
By doing so, it alleviates the power they hold over us. I was always amazed at how many people were able to have an “ah ha” moment and ultimately chose to stay because they were able to verbalize their feelings, and perhaps approach them in a different way.
I wanted to talk more in-depth with Brian about common misconceptions around suicide, the difference between empathy and sympathy, and advice for folks who want to help loved ones struggling with suicidal thoughts. What resulted was a very eye-opening conversation that I wanted to share more about here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are several resources available to help. Call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or simply dial 988 from anywhere in the US. You can also call 911 or 211 to speak with a crisis counselor.
You can also find resources online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org where you can use a Crisis Chat Portal to talk to a counselor.
Stigmas and misconceptions around suicide
When asked what he thinks the root cause of suicide is, Brian says that from his point of view, it’s a sense of disconnection. Being disconnected from family, loved ones, our dreams, and goals and — more generally, ourselves — can lead to suicidal ideation.
There is so much stigma and misunderstanding around suicide. While feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and struggles with substance abuse and mental health are all relevant, it’s that sense of being disconnected and feeling alone that makes suicide continue. Connection is something that can stop it.
It’s paradoxical because cultural standards say that it’s not okay to talk about suicide, and yet the only way out is through talking. One of the most damaging and unhelpful stigmas around suicide is that if you talk about it, you’ll make it worse. Another is that if you have thoughts of suicide, there’s something wrong with you. And if you talk about it or say it out loud, it can make it worse.
Another piece of the stigma around suicide is that those who struggle with ideation take ownership over their suicidal thoughts — that they are responsible for them. The truth is that we don’t make our thoughts so much as we experience them. Your thoughts are just one way that your brain reacts to the things around you.
It’s helpful to think of it this way: your brain produces thoughts like your mouth produces saliva. You don’t get mad at your mouth for salivating when you go to a restaurant and see appetizing food. That doesn’t make us angry, yet we tend to beat ourselves up over our thoughts.
Just because you are having thoughts of suicide doesn’t mean you’re a suicidal person. And, just because you’re having thoughts of suicide doesn’t mean that you’re alone. It just means that you’re a human being and you are going through something and it’s probably scary.
Empathy vs. sympathy
Empathy is a crucial part of talking about suicide. Many people who struggle with ideation believe: If I open up and let someone in and they know a taboo thing about me, then they can’t love me. Empathy is all about being judgment free. The thing that gets in the way of empathy is judgment. In other words, barriers to empathy are the taboos we carry around.
After his work with the Suicide Prevention Center, Brian believes that humility and empathy go hand in hand. It’s not about saying “I know how you feel.” It’s about saying, “I want to know and I’m going to try to understand.”
Sympathy is different from empathy. It says, “I’m happy to learn as much about you as I need to in order to pass judgment.” It’s important to have empathy instead of sympathy when talking about suicide. It shows the person in front of you that you have the desire to understand what they’re going through. It’s about sitting with someone in a very dark place and letting them know that they aren’t alone. Again, it all goes back to connection.
It takes a lot of courage to call any crisis hotline. To call and say, “I don’t know what to do.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is uniquely pained, it means that they have the courage to say what many people won’t. It’s a heroic effort to call and show up for yourself.
What to do if you or someone you love are suffering from thoughts of suicide
When asked what he would tell people who may be suffering from thoughts of suicide, Brian wants people to know this: what you’re going through is universal a human experience. We are subjected to so much suffering, and suicidal thoughts are a completely understandable and common human response. It’s a response to pain.
If you’re concerned with a loved one, the number one thing you can do is talk to that person about it. Contrary to what many may think, asking questions about suicide will not necessarily push someone to take their own life — in fact, it can be the thing that saves them. The powerful thing is that if they are having thoughts of suicide, they will have an opportunity to talk to someone and know that they care. There is a big stigma around suicide that says: talking about suicide will make things worse. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are lots of resources available to those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. We are (thankfully) living in a time when more and more people are paying attention to suicide — both awareness or suicide prevention measures as well as suicide bereavement. We are living in a time where it’s becoming increasingly okay to talk about it, but we’ve got a long way to go.
When you get involved and show that you are there to talk, it lets the person in front of you know that they can stop trying to figure it all out on their own. And this is perhaps, one of the most powerful things you can do to help them.
Remember, if you’re struggling with suicidal ideation or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 988 from anywhere in the US. You can also call 911 or 211 to speak with a crisis counselor.
Find more resources online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org where you can use a Crisis Chat Portal to talk to a counselor. You can also visit suicideispreventable.org, suicideisdifferent.org, The Trevor Project for LGBTQIA Youth, and the TeenLine, which has trained teenagers available to talk to their peers.
If you’re interested in hearing Brian and I’s full-length conversation, you can listen here.
Photo by Michał Mancewicz on Unsplash