September is National Suicide Prevention Month.  This week we take a look at another aspect of this serious mental health issue.

Suicide.  The word evokes emotions ranging from sadness to guilt to anger.  Most of us can’t imagine what might lead a person to take his or her own life, and yet, someone in this country does so approximately every 12 minutes. 

Among the warning signs of acute suicide risk, threatening to hurt or kill oneself is at the top of the list. (AAS, n.d.) Such threats should always be taken seriously. In some cases, however, threats of suicide or of self-harm are a means of controlling or manipulating another person.

Erika, Communications and Events Manager at Maria Droste Counseling Center, dated Nick (not his real name) for over three on-again, off-again years.  “Three years longer than I should have,” she says. The relationship went bad quickly, but she explains, she stayed because he repeatedly threatened to hurt himself or kill himself if she left him.

Erika and Nick met through common friends within a few months of ending other relationships. “In the beginning we just had fun spending time together,” Erika says. On the heels of their prior relationships, the newness and initial lightheartedness of this one was appealing to both of them.

That changed quickly, though. Nick became more demanding of Erika, and they fought often. “When I tried to end it, he would say things like, ‘If I’m not going to be with you then I might as well kill myself.’”  While she suspected these were empty threats, she couldn’t be certain, and part of her felt responsible for him.

Nick’s behavior toward Erika complicated his friendships as well. The more he would do things to hurt her, the more his friends withdrew, isolating him further.  The thought that he didn’t have anyone else only amplified Erika’s sense of responsibility for him, although she knew all along that this was misguided. Even though there were far more bad memories, the good memories of those early days allowed her to rationalize her choice to stay with him. She saw their shared history as a justification for staying, continuing to ignore the red flags and the voice inside that said, You can’t fix this.

“He did horrible things in the relationship, but I thought if I stayed, he would turn things around,” she explains. “I found myself thinking that if he did go through with  [attempting suicide], I didn’t want it to be my fault for not saying or doing anything in response to his threats.  I thought, ‘When it gets better, I’ll leave.’ But of course, that wouldn’t make sense now, would it? If things got better, I’d be less motivated to end it. I didn’t recognize the toxicity of this cycle.”

After one particularly nasty argument, Nick grabbed a knife and held it to his wrist. “I didn’t pick up on the fact that it was an empty threat,” Erika recalls. “In regards to threats of suicide, this was as bad as it got.”

Erika had been seeing a therapist to handle stress before she met Nick, and about two years into the relationship, she began working at Maria Droste. Through getting to know the therapists here and participating in educational sessions, she slowly began to realize that she was not the problem in the relationship.  “Eventually, I saw that I was putting my fate in his hands,” she says. “I knew then that the only person I could count on was me. That’s when I took my power back.”

The last time Nick threatened to kill himself, Erika told him she would call his family. “I said, ‘I can’t fix this.  I can’t fix you.’” By this time, she knew she was not responsible for his actions, whatever happened, and she was able to walk away. 

Suicide risk is often associated with mental illnesses such as depression, eating disorders and substance abuse.  People with borderline personality disorder may display suicidal or self-mutilating behavior or threats.  Completed suicide occurs in as many as 10% among such individuals. “These self-destructive acts are usually precipitated by threats of separation or rejection or by expectations that they assume increased responsibility [for themselves],” writes John M. Grohol, Psy.D.  (Grohol, 2016)

For someone on the receiving end, constant suicide threats amount to emotional blackmail, explains Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC.  “It may feel like you have no choice but to do exactly what the person says in order to avoid a tragedy, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself and potentially save the other person’s life as well.”

Thieda offers these suggestions.

  • Express concern for the person, but maintain your boundaries. Saying, “I can tell you are really upset right now, and I want to help, but I will not [fill in the blank],” shows that you care, without giving in.
  • Put the responsibility for living or dying back in the hands of the person who is making the threat. Say, “I don’t want you to have a relationship with me just because I am afraid of you dying and you think you can’t live without me. Our relationship should be based on mutual love and respect, not threats. I love you, but I can’t stop you from making this choice, even though I wish I could.”
  • Don’t argue with the other person about whether he is serious about dying. Assume all threats are serious, and act accordingly. If you argue the point, he may make an attempt just to prove you wrong.
  • Remember that contrary to what the other person is saying, you don’t have to prove anything. He may be saying, “If you loved me, you’d stop me from killing myself,” but until the core issues of what brought him to this place of wanting to end his life are addressed, giving in to his demands over and over again will not fix anything. The cycle will not break unless a trained professional steps in.

Thieda acknowledges that these steps are not easy to do, and recommends contacting professional mental health services for help. (Thieda, 2011)

Just before Erika walked away from Nick that last time, he started seeing a therapist.  “Once I knew he had a professional helping him, it was easier for me to keep from getting drawn back in.  It wasn’t a choice of me or nothing,” Erika says.  They both started seeing things differently. “He was getting himself back and simultaneously I was, too, but the clearest revelation was that I finally saw he was not my responsibility.”

If you have someone in your life who threatens suicide or self-harm, seek professional help.  An excellent resource in Colorado is Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, Crisis Line 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or www.metrocrisisservices.org

For ongoing support, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600 to speak to one of our counselors.

AAS (n.d.) Know the Warning Signs of Suicide. American Association of Suicidology. Retrieved on September 6, 2016, from https://www.suicidology.org/resources/warning-signs

Grohol, J. (2016). Characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 8, 2016, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/characteristics-of-borderline-personality-disorder/

Thieda, K. (2011). Feeling Manipulated by Suicide Threats? Psych Central. Retrieved on September 10, 2016, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/wellness/2011/11/manipulated-by-suicide-threats/