Jerry was a fifty-seven year-old male who doused himself with gasoline and was in possession of a handgun, threatening to commit suicide. This was his response to an eviction notice. It was clear he had issues. After 12 hours of negotiations and 40 rounds of gas (yes, he was still talking), it was also clear that Jerry was a SWOMie (Suicide With Other Motivations).
SWOMie is a person who engages in suicidal behavior for a purpose other than suicide. They use the behavior as a deception to gain an advantage by affecting change in others, using guilt as the fuel. While we need to take all suicidal behavior seriously we must be ready to manage these manipulators whose basic theme is, “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll kill myself.” The word manipulator does not imply that the attempt is not serious. Fatal attempts often occur by people hoping to influence someone else. Assessing the motivation, behavior, and dialogue will help in determining the difference between a bona fide suicide attempter and a SWOMie.
Here was the assessment in Jerry’s Case after 20 hours of negotiations—
Jerry’s objective was to control the situation and the negotiator. He exhibited many characteristics of a Vulnerable Narcissist. Jerry was emotionally sensitive and preoccupied with fears of rejection and abandonment. He slid back and forth along a continuum between feeling superior and inferior. Jerry was very defensive when alternatives were suggested. In fact, he was the consummate “Yes, but…” man, using “Yes, but…” to reject alternatives or solutions. He would acknowledge validity of the option/decision/action (“Yes”) but frequently came up with a reason why it would not work for him (“But”). He was calm and composed throughout most of the event and clearly enjoyed “the game” offering passive-aggressive challenges and condescending compliments to the negotiator.
With the exception of the initial dousing of gasoline, which Jerry described as a “moment of high drama” and a “performance”, there had been no other overt actions to commit the suicide that he stated he wanted. The verbal threat of suicide was to keep was police at bay. Jerry had the means and opportunity to commit the act many times during the course of the incident but elected not to do so. While he made a substantive demand (letter of clemency) early in the negotiations, he had not repeated the demand nor did he appear to be interested in bargaining in any meaningful way. Jerry would “cry” and then hang up on the negotiator. When he answered the immediate call-back, there was no indication that he had been crying. He opted for continuing the circular dialogue with negotiator and would utter statements like, “If it’s gonna happen, it should happen today…”The decision was made shortly thereafter to tactically impact Jerry’s environment which eventually led to his surrender.
SWOMies can be challenging to manage. Here are some tips to mitigate those challenges.
- Use Active Listening Skills and let them expound
- Provide positive recognition frequently. Check his reaction to be sure you have understood what positive recognition he is seeking
- Demonstrate honesty and sincerity. Deep down the SWOMie usually lacks well-grounded self-esteem. Therefore, the more credible you can be, the better
- Express concern, but maintain your boundaries. The SWOMie is used to getting his way and is expecting you to yield. “I can tell you are really upset right now, and I want to help, but I will not [fill in the blank]”
- Put the responsibility for living or dying back on them. “You have said that[fill in the blank] is forcing you to do this but, killing yourself is your choice”
- Don’t argue with the SWOMie about whether they are 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
- Mentally prepare yourself for commission of the act once the determination is made to either cut off dialogue or impact his environment