“Just keep him talking.” How this Scout saved his friend from a possible suicide

Scouts BSA member Shawn Sweeney
Photo courtesy of the Sweeney family

Shawn Sweeney, a Scouts BSA youth in Texas, was on the phone with a longtime family friend when he heard five words that chilled him to the bone.

Shawn’s friend had been confiding that he was having some troubles and not feeling good about himself. Then he said, “I want to end it.”

“What do you mean you want to end it?” Shawn asked.

“I have a knife,” his friend replied.

At that moment, Shawn, not wanting his friend to die, sprung into action, and the decisions he and his mother made over the next few hours very likely saved the friend’s life.

“I was pretty scared,” says Shawn. “I was just thinking, I have to get to him somehow. I have to prevent this from happening.”

September is Suicide Prevention Month. It’s a time to raise awareness about suicide as a serious public health problem and to educate youth on resources that are available to them should they feel like they need help.

The BSA has provided resources that can be used at a September meeting of any of the BSA’s programs for older youth: Scouts BSA units, Venturing crews, Sea Scout ships and Exploring posts. Click here to learn more.

The BSA also has Safety Moments on Youth Suicide Prevention, Depression and Resilience.

A Scout leaps into action

The Sweeneys had been friends with the other person’s family for years.

Shawn knew his friend had been struggling with feelings of insecurities about his weight. His friend said he sometimes felt like he didn’t fit in with other people his age.

But the person had never expressed an intention to hurt himself until that night.

Shawn ran downstairs and alerted his mom, Heather, to what was happening.

He would briefly put his friend on mute as he and his mom tried to decide what to do.

They decided they needed to get to the friend’s house as fast as possible.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the friend’s parents weren’t home. The mother was at a meeting at her church, which explained why Heather’s texts to her were going unanswered.

“I was texting the mom and trying to contact her, telling her that it was urgent and that she needed to contact me immediately, and she wasn’t texting me back because her phone was in her purse,” says Heather.

Shawn and Heather got in their car, and Heather began driving them to the friend’s house, about 15 minutes away.

“I tried to talk about the good stuff”

Shawn and Heather thought several times about calling 911 but couldn’t figure out a way to do it without frightening the friend. Heather was expecting to hear back from the boy’s mother at any moment, and as far as she knew, the mother could have been in the very next room.

Shawn was afraid to even tell his friend that he had alerted his own mom to the situation, or that they were on their way to the friend’s house, with the understandable fear that the slightest thing could cause him to harm himself.

They felt the best way to help the friend was to keep him calm until they got there.

“I had to keep him talking,” Shawn says. “I tried to talk about the good stuff, to keep his mind off things.”

Eventually, Heather felt she had no choice but to fully explain to the mother what was happening via text.

“I texted that we’re on our way to your house, that we’re really worried about (her child), and you need to really contact me right now,” Heather says.

Heather and Shawn arrived at the friend’s house, with the friend having no idea that Shawn had ever left his home.

Shawn and Heather knocked on the door, and Shawn heard his friend say “hold on” through the phone.

When the friend opened his front door and saw Shawn and Heather there, he burst into tears.

Over a period of many minutes, the three of them took turns hugging each other. The Sweeneys made sure the knife was removed from his room.

There were lots of tears.

“I think he felt loved and supported,” Heather says.

Being prepared to help

A short time later, the friend’s mom came home. Heather spoke to her at length and Shawn continued reassuring his friend, telling him that it would be OK, that they could work together on the things that were bothering him.

The Sweeneys didn’t leave that night until they were certain the other family was safe.

The boy got professional help right away, and he and his family continue to recover.

Shawn says the decision-making skills he learned in Scouts helped him keep his cool that night.

“At the start of the call, he just sounded really sad, and I’m like OK, I should probably cheer him up,” he says. “But as soon as it came across that he had a tool of harm, and he was going to act on it … I was kind of in a panic, but I had to keep composed, because I didn’t want that to happen.”

The Sweeney family
Shawn, with his mother, Heather, his father, Kirk, and four siblings. Photos courtesy of the Sweeney family

What to do if you think a friend could complete suicide

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline lists five action steps for communicating with someone who may be suicidal.

  1. Ask. It’s OK to ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” The flip side of “ask” is “listen.” Make sure you listen and take them seriously.
  2. Be there. This could mean being physically present, or staying on the phone with someone until help arrives.
  3. Help keep them safe. Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal means – such as a knife – is an important part of suicide prevention.
  4. Help them connect. Helping someone with thoughts of suicide connect with ongoing supports (like the 988 Lifeline) can help them establish a safety net for those moments they find themselves in a crisis.
  5. Follow up. Stay in touch with the person to see how they’re doing.

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can call or text 988, or chat with them online at any time. There is also a dedicated number in Spanish: 1-888-628-9454.

About Aaron Derr 455 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.