Dear Karen - “How Can I Help My Brother Leave His Suicidal Girlfriend?”
I’m not sure if this is still a thing but here goes...
I need help. I need to help my brother.
His girlfriend of one year is really not well, mentally. Her parents split up when she was younger and emotionally her dad abused her. She became very unwell and was locked in a mental health unit to manage her bipolar after suffering sexual assault. Since then she’s battled with her mental health.
For a few months I’ve seen it getting worse but stayed out the way because my parents told me not to get involved. However, last night topped it off for me.
She had a break down and has been saying she will kill herself as soon as he goes to work (he works night shift) and that she has plans on how to kill herself when he has time away.
She’s been seen by mental health teams who professionally think she just needs to better manage her emotions and cope with this with them.
They and myself really don’t think she would do something and it’s part of her illness that she says it.
She admits he gives her 110% and really couldn’t give any more to help her. But he’s breaking.
He wants to leave. He loves her but he’s had enough. I can see him breaking in front of me but he can’t leave out of fear of her doing something stupid.
Please any advice would help. I’m all out of things to say and do ...
Oh my goodness what a horrific situation for you all. As with all illnesses, mental illness really does touch so many more people than the one who’s initially affected and, as you’re finding out, it really can be contagious.
To give you some context, I’ve been touched by suicide multiple times during my life - my close childhood friend, my colleague’s fiancé, my mum’s close friend as well as multiple people close to friends of mine so I’ve seen and felt the devastation it causes. Mental illness is no joke, excruciatingly difficult to manage from both the inside and the outside and more people than you know are struggling to cope each and every day. I have people all around me who struggle to varying degrees and with different disorders and though completely undiagnosed, if I’m honest with myself, I was probably suffering myself last year too.
As is my way, when I come up against something I don’t understand and am desperate to ‘fix’ I go EXTRA on the research - big deep dives into both medical and psychological journals as well as people’s personal battles and experiences in order to gain some clarity and make a plan to how I can help myself or others. I am of course, no expert in any of these topics, just someone with a keen interest and a bit of personal experience. In the advice that follows, I’ll suggest various professionals and ‘experts’ who can supplement what I’m going to say.
For someone struggling with any mental illness - anxiety, depression, bi-polar, personality disorders - suicide is a real threat and often feels to the person suffering as if it’s their only way out. When life becomes so dark and painful, a person’s ability to rationalise and problem solve is seriously impaired, no solution seems workable, all efforts are going on just surviving hour to hour, minute to minute and there really is no extra energy or brain capacity to try what from the outside seems to be a logical next step. All they want is for the pain to stop and when that feels like that may never be possible, ending their life starts to look like an appealing prospect.
From the outside, these ‘threats’ can feel manipulative in order to keep people from leaving or ‘cries for help’ which I’ve heard people be dismissive of but anytime anyone tells you they are thinking about or have a plan to end their life, it’s vital that that’s taken seriously, treated with compassion and you do what you can to help and support.
From a statistical point of view, someone like your brother’s girlfriend who has had multiple traumas in her life (family breakdown, emotional and sexual abuse), who is suffering from bi-polar, who’s been institutionalised and who has on-going struggles with her mental health, her ‘threat’ is much more likely to be a serious one than from the average person, so as wonderful as it would be to believe this is just something she says, my advice would be to proceed as if it were a very real possibility.
Sadly, living with and supporting someone in such an unhappy place and feeling as though you are a pivotal player in their life can have such a major impact on your own wellbeing and without the tools and support network in place to help you, you end up not only completely incapable of helping the person you love and want to support, but also fall into disrepair yourself and in turn, start to struggle yourself. The sad reality is that however much we love someone and try to help, overcoming mental health problems is really an inside job - we can be there to listen, encourage and offer all means of help and support which in turn can make it possible for someone to climb out of the hole, but beyond that there really is nothing we can do. That’s a horrible realisation and what you’ve said, this sounds like where your brother has got to.
So what can you do to best support your brother and in turn, his girlfriend?
Not knowing any more about this situation other than what you’ve sent me in your message, my first task would be to gather the facts. Often when you’re in the middle of these things it can be difficult to see clearly plus there’s all the big emotions involved here too - love worry and guilt on your brother’s side, love, worry and feelings of wanting to protect your brother on your part. Presumably with the amount of professional involvement she’s had, your brother’s girlfriend is likely to still be under the care of psychological services and health care workers and with a diagnosis like bi-polar I’m assuming she has medication to help manage this.
It doesn’t sound like what ever support and/or medication she’s receiving at the minute is working as well as it could be. Is she taking her medication as instructed? Is she attending appointments/therapy/support groups? Does she have a good relationship with the professionals in her life and can she be persuaded and cajoled into making an appointment with them to review her treatment plan? Does she recognise she’s having a depressive episode and that her current treatment isn’t working for her?
From a support network point of view, does she have a good relationship with her mum (I’m assuming from what you’ve said about her dad that he’s not a source of support for her)? What about friends - does she have people who understand what she’s going through who can be there to take the burden off your brother?
You said you’ve been watching things get worse for a few months - can your brother determine what’s triggered this downturn? Did something happen? Has she made some sort of routine or lifestyle change that could be affecting her ability to cope generally?
Then, from your brother’s point of view - can he verbalise how he’s feeling right now? Has he really got to the point where he knows he needs to leave for his own good, or is he resigned to staying the course but, much like someone might say they want to end their life without following through, he’s said he wants to end the relationship but intends to stay the course?
From a practical point of view your brother can do a few pre-emptive things to mitigate the upset and trauma before having to do the hardest bit of sitting down and ending this relationship.
He can gather his own support network around him ahead of this likely traumatic event - you, your parents, his close friends and if he feels he needs it, a professional counsellor or mental health worker to help keep him strong, check in with him when he’s quiet and to provide any kind of support he’ll accept while he navigates this tricky situation. The old adage of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others really applies here.
He can reach out to his girlfriend’s doctor or therapist and raise his concerns about her stability at the minute - he can prompt them to check in with her which can be just what she needs right now. Perhaps he could have a ‘hypothetical’ conversation with them about how he could best go about delivering this kind of news and limiting the trauma for them both?
If that’s not a conversation he can have with her current professional support network, there are various online support services or organisations like The Samaritans who would gladly talk him through what he needs to consider when having the break-up chat.
He can, if he trusts them, approach her mum and/or friends and share his concerns with them, giving them a head’s up that he’s really not coping now either and that she needs them around. He can prompt them with things they can do to support her - anything that’s worked/not worked in the past.
He can prepare a bundle of support material for her in advance of sitting down with her - books, social media accounts that tackle mental health problems, podcasts, websites, other support services that she’s maybe not yet accessing but is eligible for.
He then needs to have a think about what he’s going to say, how he’s going to say it, how he’s going to respond if and when she reacts badly, emotionally, manipulatively. What are his boundaries, what is he prepared to offer going forward? - friendship? Is that too hard or potentially damaging for both? He needs to decided that before having the conversation.
But then, he really just needs to sit down with her and explain how he’s feeling. There’s no getting away from it, that’s going to be a tough situation and will be extremely difficult for him to do. If he’s already feeling broken, this can only damage him more though, hopefully, that will only be temporary and he will from that place be able to heal himself.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO SUPPORT YOUR BROTHER
So your job is to support your brother in any way you can. I know the temptation will be to push him to do this quickly, you want him to extricate himself from the toxicity of the relationship he’s in so that you can keep him safe, but you must let him do this on his own timeline.
Let him know you’re there for him always, that you want him to lean on you (make sure you also have support in place to take on that burden), send him links to articles or podcasts or websites you think might help him.
Listen to him, let him talk and talk, or if he wants to stay silent, offer to sit in silence with him.
Maybe he needs distraction - can you go to the movies or invite him out for dinner?
Be careful not to villainise his girlfriend - as much as her condition is at the root of a lot your brother’s pain right now, she is absolutely a victim here too and making her the villain, however unfair and manipulative she might appear to be, will only make him more defensive of her and prolong this process.
Do whatever he needs you to do and be ready to pick up the pieces when he does eventually break things off.
I’ve had a few friends go through very similar circumstances and both, sadly, waited until they really were broken and literally did not have it in them to continue before the called it off. It really was their last resort as they both wanted desperately to not hurt this person that they loved any more than they already were. Both were men leaving women with fairly significant mental health problems and one had the added burden of having children to think about. These were both incredibly messy break-ups with enormous concerns over the well-being of the other party but as horrible as these break-ups were for everyone involved, time did heal and both women ultimately coped and one certainly is now married with a family, the other I’m no longer in contact with.
There’s no easy answer or solution here unfortunately and as I said, I’m no authority on the subject but I do hope some of what I’ve said is helpful and offers some next steps for you to consider. I really feel for you all, I know it’s not easy and is the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night, never knowing if what you’re doing is the right thing. You can’t save your brother from this, that’s all on him, but you can continue to do what you’re doing and be there for him and seek information and advice that can support him. You’re a good sister.
I’m going to turn this over to my followers, I know I have some mental health professionals that tune in and I’m sure they’ll be able to add/amend/correct what I’ve said....
Best of luck and please let me know how you all get on.