If You Suspect a Friend or Loved One is Thinking of Suicide

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You are walking with your best friend and she steps into the street without looking, forcing a car to swerve around her. You say, “Oh my God, you almost got killed,” and she says, “It wouldn’t matter anyway if I were dead.”

Your son is home from college for spring break and has barely left his room. He barely eats, he sleeps all day, and he answers your questions with one-word answers.

Your father has bipolar disorder and nearly died from a suicide attempt two months ago. Lately he has stopped taking his medication and seems to be sliding back into depression.

Whether you are worried about a friend or loved one because they made an offhand comment about suicide, appear to be struggling with depression, or actually attempted suicide in the past, it is a tough place to be. What do you say? What do you do?

My advice, which I will elaborate on in this post, can be distilled into three steps:

  1. Ask the friend or family member if he or she thinks of suicide, even if you are afraid to do so, and even if you are afraid you are overreacting. 
  1. Listen – really listen – to their response. Don’t jump in with advice, reassurance, or problem solving, at least not right away. 
  1. Take steps to get the person help.

Ask the Person if He or She is Thinking of Suicide

Afraid friend is suicidalMany people worry that if they ask a friend or loved one if he or she is considering suicide, then the person will blow up in anger (see my post about this topic here). They may have grown up thinking that suicide is a bad word, or a sin, or something only “crazy” people seriously think about. Others may fear that they are overreacting.

Yes, the person you are concerned about might get angry. In those cases, ask yourself what would be worse: for them to get angry, or for them to be alone with their thoughts of suicide and to possibly act on those thoughts?

Consider that the person might not actually get angry. If they are not thinking of suicide, they may simply say, “No, no. I would never think of suicide.”

Another possibility is that the person will actually welcome your question. Many people who consider suicide feel isolated and ashamed. They, too, may have grown up thinking that it is sinful or insane to seriously consider suicide. Or they may feel terrified of their thoughts and desperate for help, but unsure of how to broach this stigmatized subject.

Suffering alone with suicidal thoughts is a terrible burden. By asking your friend or loved one this difficult question, you are offering to share that burden with them. They might feel relieved that you have asked.

For specific ways to ask someone if they are considering suicide, click here to see my previous post on the topic.

Listen Well when Hearing about Suicide

Listening to Suicidal FriendIf your friend or family member does indicate they are thinking of suicide, then you must first do what is most difficult: Listen, without trying to talk them out of suicide, at least not at first.

Sometimes just being able to talk about suicidal thoughts without being judged or  lectured or dismissed gives the suicidal person hope. So, resist the instinct to immediately say, “But things will get better” or “But you’re young and have so much to live for,” or “But your family will be devastated.”

Instead, say something like, “It must be awful to feel that way. Tell me more.” Listen, and then listen some more, asking questions along the way that demonstrate nothing but concern, such as, “What’s wrong?” or “What hurts so badly?”

After you have listened and understood, then what? Then come the advice, the hotline numbers, the exhortations to not harm oneself.  Then, and only then.  First, listen.  

Take Steps to Get the Suicidal Person Help

Now comes the concrete assistance. Here are some ways you can help someone who is thinking about suicide:

Call 911 if the person is in danger of acting now on their suicidal thoughts, or accompany the person to an emergency room or crisis center. 

Give the person the number to the national suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) and the crisis text line number, 741-741 (for people in the U.S.) 

If you are a kid or teenager and the person you are concerned about is, too, then tell an adult. Even if you were sworn to secrecy, this secret is too dangerous to keep when a life is at stake. Tell the person’s parents, or a teacher, or a minister – anyone who can help. 

If the person you are concerned about is a family member, talk to other family members. Enlist their help. Make sure the home environment is free of lethal weapons, such as firearms or large supplies of medication. 

Give the person information about other resources for help, such as mental health agencies in town. You can also check out the Resources page on this site.

Direct the person to suicide prevention websites. An excellent site is http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/, with a comprehensive post titled, “If You’re Thinking of Suicide, Read this First.” Of course, this site SpeakingOfSuicide.com also may be helpful, in particular the post, “Are You Thinking of Killing Yourself?” 

Other Resources for Helping Someone who Is Suicidal

For more information on helping people who have suicidal thoughts, check out these web resources:

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/Someone

http://samaritanshope.org/index.php/helping-the-suicidal

http://www.afsp.org/i-am/worried-about-someone

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention.htm

http://www.suicide.org/how-to-help-a-suicidal-person.html

http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/whattodo.htm

© 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com

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