Suzanne just thought it would work out differently.
She applied for that job, knowing she was more than qualified for it. She rocked the interview and even got immediate feedback from her interviewer telling her to expect a phone call with a job offer in a couple of days. When the email came the next week telling her that the company went a different direction for the hire, she was stunned. More than stunned really. She was angry.
She was counting on this job to help her make ends meet. She needed the pay increase to keep her house running. What was she going to do about all the bills that have been piling up now? Where was God during all this?
This is the story Suzanne tells you over the phone. Then she drops a bomb on you, something you don’t know how to respond to. She says, “Sometimes I just wish I was dead. It would be so much easier for me and everyone else.”
Wow! You didn’t see that coming. You knew she was not in a great place about the job, but suicidal? She didn’t even seem depressed. What are you supposed to do when something like this happens?
A Bible Character Who Struggled with Depression?
You might be surprised to find out that the Bible has something to say about Suzanne’s train of thought. The prophet Jonah goes through something very similar, wrestling with anger, depression, and suicidal thoughts. We can learn from his story in the Old Testament. As you might recall, Jonah was called to go to Nineveh to preach judgment from God, but he didn’t want to go. He was worried that God would forgive them if they repented…and that’s exactly what happened.
Our story picks up in chapter 4 after Jonah preaches to the city. Jonah is sitting outside the city, frankly hoping to see God destroy the city. Then he gets furiously angry because God cancels his judgment. Then this same phenomenon takes place. He complains to God and begs God to kill him. Jonah goes from anger to suicidal thoughts in a single bound, it seems.
There’s more to the story, but let’s stop right here and ask an important question. Is Jonah suicidal in this moment? After all, he just asked God to kill him—that’s sort of the definition of suicidal, isn’t it?
Was Jonah Suicidal?
Perhaps my answer will surprise you, but I don’t believe Jonah was suicidal. He was really angry, and he was human. When we get angry, we can say things we don’t mean literally, to make a point about exactly how angry we are. In this case, Jonah wants to make sure God understands how angry he is, so he asks God to kill him. He would rather be dead than endure seeing Nineveh escape God’s wrath.
“God, I’m angry enough with you that I don’t want to go on with you anymore. Just take my life.” His anger results in a statement he didn’t really mean, but it’s not the same thing as having suicidal thoughts.
Is Suzanne Having Suicidal Thoughts?
This is exactly where Suzanne was in our opening story. She was expecting the job to come through, and all signs pointed toward her getting the job, so when it didn’t happen she was angry. In her anger, she reacted. Or, perhaps overreacted.
For both Jonah and Suzanne, they didn’t literally mean they wanted to die. They were exasperated and needed to vent it somehow. Their frustration came out in an exaggerated statement that, if taken seriously, would result in an equal overreaction to their statements. Let me explain what I mean.
4 Best Ways to Respond to a Friend Who May Be Suicidal
If Suzanne was talking to you and you took her suicidal statement at face value, the wise thing to do would be to reach out for professional help. Maybe calling 9-1-1 or personally taking her to a psychiatric ward. But this isn’t likely what’s really happening here.
Before you rush to extremes, there are four steps you can take to gauge the seriousness of her statement about wishing she was dead and respond appropriately.
1. Do Not Panic.
Freaking out over her words won’t help anyone, especially Suzanne. You need to stay calm and ask a couple of questions to see where she’s at. There is a definite possibility that she 100% is suicidal, and you can figure this out with a few pointed questions. The odds are, though, that she’s expressing her anger in an exaggerated way to make a point about how she feels right now and is not actually experiencing real suicidal thoughts.
After you stay calm, the next thing you want to do is ask her to talk about how she feels. In this specific situation, the question to Suzanne would look something like this: “I can only imagine how frustrated you must be. Let’s talk about this some more. What are the thoughts going through your head about this right now?” This is a vital question because you will find out where she’s truly at.
If she’s angry, then her thoughts will sound like it. She will say things like, “I just don’t get it! I thought the job was mine. How could this happen? I’m so angry that this didn’t work out. I need to find another job that will help me make ends meet, or maybe get a second job. I just don’t know what to do.”
The important thing to notice in these comments is that she is trying to figure out next steps but doesn’t know what they look like. A truly suicidal person isn’t thinking about next steps; they are thinking about how to end it now. An angry person could be confused about the future but is still trying to figure it out.
3. Don’t Problem-Solve.
The most important thing you can do now is not solve Suzanne’s problems for her. You can be a sounding board, listening to her work through her emotions, but don’t offer solutions unless she directly asks for help. She isn’t ready to problem-solve yet; she’s trying to get to a better place emotionally. Continue to draw her emotions out of her by asking open-ended questions about where she’s at emotionally. Examples include:
- What do you think next steps might be for you right now?
- Can you describe your emotions right now?
- How can I help you, or can I even help right now?
4. Sit With Them.
When I’ve received phone calls like the one from Suzanne, I always offer to come and sit with the person in their anger. There’s something healing about not being alone, and beyond that it gives an opportunity for a deeper conversation than a phone call or a text can accomplish.
Let’s return to the story of Jonah to talk some more about what the conversation might look like.
Jonah and Deconstructing Faith
God asks Jonah if he has a reason to be angry, and this is a powerful question in the context of what happened in the narrative. Jonah was angry because God didn’t meet his expectations. Jonah saw God as the God of Israel. It was God’s job to love the Israelites and only the Israelites. When God didn’t align with Jonah’s expectation by showing himself to love Nineveh too, Jonah got angry.
This is an ancient example of what we now call faith deconstruction. Deconstruction often happens when our assumptions about God don’t align with what we’re experiencing or thinking about God. This was happening with Suzanne too—she expected God would provide for her needs through the new job, and God didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
We have the privilege of maybe being able to enter into these deconstruction conversations with the Suzannes in our life. We can ask the hard questions about God in the midst of the anger, and stir up thoughtfulness and a truer expectation of who God actually is. Some example questions that we could ask along these lines include:
- Where do you think God is in this situation?
- What might God be showing you about his character and his nature through these circumstances?
- Do you think there might be some poorly constructed ideas about God mixed up in your emotions about what’s happening right now? What might those ideas be?
In today’s social media, deconstruction is often seen as the first step away from loving or believing in God. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right type of guidance, deconstruction can lead to a healthier view of God, a better way to think about him and his actions in the world.
Don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions about suicidal thoughts or depression. Sometimes people who sound suicidal and depressed are really just angry. When responding, follow the 4 steps provided in this article. Too many times, we as humans speak out emotional statements that aren’t a reflection of where we really are in the moment. Even if someone says they wish they were dead, they might not actually mean it. You don’t want to take someone’s mental health lightly, but it’s also important to draw your friend’s emotions out into the open, to examine them together in the light of God’s love and goodness. It takes time and a gentle heart, but it’s worth the effort. This gives us opportunities to show the character of God that we will miss if we jump to a conclusion based only on a single statement.