Criminal negligence in suicide?
November 24, 2020 8:49 PM   Subscribe

I know you are not my lawyer. But I need a lawyers opinion. A family member with a history of bipolar disorder got a pretty disturbing message to me insinuating suicide. I know this family member very well and I feel they are serious. I dont want to understate my concern (cont)

By not attending to them but my hands are knotted. I do believe they are in serious pain. I dont believe they would wound their entire family so close to a holiday with this drastic a decision. But I do know those in crisis dont want help they want out. Aside from all this I was messaged on social media. Do I have a legal obligation to step in? Can I be held liable if they carry through with this and I didnt intervene?
posted by The_imp_inimpossible to Law & Government (18 answers total)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255 (in the United States)

Calling doesn't obligate you to do anything, but their support may help you decide what you can and should do.

I'm sorry you're in this position. We're all wishing the best for you and your family.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:57 PM on November 24, 2020 [11 favorites]

NAMI for further advice.

if you feel person is in immediate danger, do not hesitate to call 911. i have.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:22 PM on November 24, 2020 [15 favorites]

I was in this position several years ago. A friend of mine went through a very bad patch and started texting me a bunch of increasingly scary things, including pictures of them bleeding and tying nooses. They had attempted suicide before. They weren't answering my phone calls and at one point the texts stopped. I called the police to do a wellness check. It sucks that it was cops, but they were in the best position to get inside my friend's apartment in what I truly believed was an emergency situation.

This person was hospitalized because of the call I made. They decided they no longer wanted to be friends with me after this incident. And honestly I'm ok with that, because it's a choice they're able to make because they're still alive. They can hate me forever, I will never regret it.
posted by phunniemee at 9:26 PM on November 24, 2020 [84 favorites]

I would not count on the idea that suicide would ruin the family's holidays would be enough to prevent it. At the same time, people in crisis are sometimes open to help that gives them a way without having to kill themselves.

So, I would strongly recommend talking to a professional about how to best respond. Here is a list of international suicide hotline that can help you decide how to respond to your family member's situation.

In response to the question that you actually asked, INAL but here is a legal website that discusses how hard it is to hold some else responsible for the person's suicide.
posted by metahawk at 9:32 PM on November 24, 2020 [7 favorites]

Reading between the lines, it sounds like you want to avoid getting sucked into this person's drama.

If you're worried about criminal negligence, why not just call one of the resources others have suggested? Spend 5 minutes calmly passing the details on to them, then be done with it. Your attitude can be "I want this person to get the help they need, but I can't be part of that help. Here are the details that I know." Then, let the professionals deal with it.
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:35 PM on November 24, 2020 [16 favorites]

You don’t say what jurisdiction you’re in, but in most American jurisdictions, the common law rule is you don’t have a duty to intervene unless you have a special relationship to the person (parent, legal guardian, doctor, teacher, etc) and even then it is very tight rule. I am a lawyer, this is not legal advice because I don’t know where you are, and also, I don’t practice civil law so it’s more like a recitation of what I remember from the topic 14 years ago in law school.

I’m sorry this person is going through this. I agree with all the suggestions about giving the person the hotline number or calling yourself.
posted by Happydaz at 11:17 PM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

There are some relatively small things that can be done which are the difference between a person attempting suicide or getting help.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 12:25 AM on November 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

Unless this person is white, do not just call the police. It's also very risky if they are low-income. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline for better advice than people here can provide. There are no simplistic answers.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 4:43 AM on November 25, 2020 [12 favorites]

Look, I'm not a laywer. But I've been suicidal my whole life and talked about suicide with dozens if not hundreds of people — gone to support groups with other suicidal people, hung out in online communities of people planning suicide, been hospitalized many times with people who'd attempted suicide — and never once heard of an ordinary citizen getting in the slightest bit of legal trouble for ignoring suicide threats.

As a moral issue, I think you should try to help, if only by sending a hotline number. But I'd be shocked if you had any legal liability.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:29 AM on November 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

I dont believe they would wound their entire family so close to a holiday with this drastic a decision.

A few years ago my bipolar uncle shot himself just before Christmas. He'd been sending out various scary signals, but no one who read them did anything. No one even tried to get his guns away from him.

This was the second suicide in my immediate family. Both were bipolar men with guns in the house, which they used on themselves.

Holidays can be a high pressure time, especially in these circumstances. Please do use the resources in the top two comments, and take this seriously.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:30 AM on November 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

In addition to the other resources above, can I recommend this interview from the R4 'All in the Mind' program? It's with a British footballer and his wife, describing his depression, suicide attempts, and eventual recovery. I'm recommending it because it taught me more than probably anything else I've come across before, about why people die by suicide and what can be done to help them. It specifically discusses some of the issues you are struggling with, such as the timing around the holidays, from the perspective of a person who has been there and the family member who didn't know what to do.
posted by EllaEm at 6:37 AM on November 25, 2020

I dont believe they would wound their entire family so close to a holiday with this drastic a decision.

Not to be scary but, it happens. I had a friend who committed suicide on Christmas. My feelings are the same as the people above, you are not at risk of getting in legal trouble in most places I know of, but that doesn't mean there aren't things you can do that might help without getting you involved.

What we do on AskMetafilter when people post questions about suicide is refer them to the suicide hotline that is in their locality and/or the ThereIsHelp page on the wiki which has a lot more resources that can help people who are struggling.
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on November 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I called police to do a wellness check when a friend expressed distinctive suicidal wishes and took off in a car, across the lawn because I tried to stop them. Police did not detain the friend, who did get to a therapist and get some assistance. This was in front of kids, and crimped the friendship on both sides for quite a while.

I recommend How *Not* to Commit Suicide by Art Kleiner for you, possibly for the family member. I sent the article to someone who was suicidal and who found it life-altering, helped to choose to live. It has stuck with me since I read it when it was published.
posted by theora55 at 10:49 AM on November 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Depending on geography/residences, you could also contact the most stable relative geographically nearest to them (assuming that's not you) and tell them about the messages. If you're saying your hands are tied because the suicidal person told you not to tell anyone else, that's an unfair request and you should ignore it.
posted by lapis at 1:25 PM on November 25, 2020

IANAL and I cannot help you with the legal part of your question.

However, I *do* have a degree in Psychology and experience working on a suicide hotline, and I'm going to push back on the idea that a suicidal person would or wouldn't "decide" to "wound their family this close to a holiday". That line of thinking is problematic and all too common.

Most but not all people who are suicidal have mental health issues. Suicide is often the end result of untreated or insufficiently treated illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Just as someone with cancer doesn't "decide" to die of cancer right before Thanksgiving, most people who are suicidal don't "decide" under what circumstances they will commit suicide. They have simply come to the end of their ability to tolerate the emotional pain. Think of it like a person leaping out of a burning building.

I certainly hope you wouldn't judge someone for leaping out of a burning building, or assume they wouldn't do so because of the impact it might have on others.

Maybe you've never felt suicidal, but think of the worst pain you have ever felt, and then consider what it would feel like if you felt that pain all the time, and additionally had no hope for it ever being better. Do you think you would be in a position to consider the impact of your actions on your family? More likely, you would be so absorbed with pain that it blocked out everything in your life.

In addition to referring your relative to a service like Samaritans suicide hotline at 800-273-8255, if you have the emotional resources to do so, just listening is the best gift you can personally give them. You don't have to and shouldn't try to fix their problems. Just listen, let them know you've heard what they've said, and tell them you care.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 2:19 PM on November 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

I think using the resources linked above is a great idea, but if it changes anything at all for you, I just wanted to push back on this sentiment:

But I do know those in crisis dont want help they want out.

There may be times when this is true, but I think for a lot of suicidal people - particularly those who reach out to someone close to them to share their suicidal ideation - they do in fact want help.

I'm not a professional - just someone who has spent decades of my life dealing with suicidal ideation. For me, when I'm really actively suicidal, it's the combination of unbearable pain plus a feeling that it will never get better and that there's nothing that can be done about it. But when I reach out to someone, it's because I'm looking for a way not to have to end my life. Suicide is the last resort.

I don't know if this changes your feelings at all, but I do think if your family member is reaching out, there is likely at least some small part of them that wants help. It can be really scary when you're in that place.

I dont believe they would wound their entire family so close to a holiday with this drastic a decision.

People who are suicidal are often depressed or mentally ill in some way. Depression warps your thinking. It convinces you that you are a burden, that no one really cares about you, that the people in your life would be better off if you were dead.

Or sometimes the pain is just so bad that a person can't take it anymore, even knowing how much it will hurt those around them.

As people have already noted above, you should not assume that "not wanting to ruin the holidays" will keep someone from committing suicide.

I can't weigh in about the legal liability aspect, but I think calling the suicide hotline is a good first step. If you aren't willing to do that, then giving the number to your family member. Or both.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:41 PM on November 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Ruin the holidays?
Dec 8 is when my mother shot herself in a festively decorated crowded department store.

Screwed up Christmas forever.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:40 PM on November 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

[Quote] Dec 8 is when my mother shot herself in a festively decorated crowded department store. [/Quote]

Bluehorse, My deepest sympathy to you and your family! That could possibly be the saddest thing I think I could read.
Update: I did read the message sent to me rather literally but thought I should be less dramatic and just check in on them. this person has a history of chemical imbalance so I took them at their word. In most instances words like these are just a cry for attention but I dont feel they are sincere most times. I went and visited my relative and assured them there is nothing we couldnt get through together even if it was just the two of us (many others in the family have washed their hands due to unreasonable expectations vs. Life choices). I sincerely appreciate everyones help. I dont know how to process suicidal ideation so I'm grateful for more pragmatic wisdom.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 12:15 AM on November 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

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