“You Can’t Do Everything”: Limitations in Helping a Suicidal Person

hands tied with suicidal personJust about every list of “suicide myths” mentions this one: “If a person is serious about killing themselves then there is nothing you can do.”  But is it always a myth?

In important ways, yes, it is a myth. There are many things that loved ones of a suicidal individual can do to help – things like asking directly about suicidal thoughtsfully listening to the person, providing nonjudgmental emotional support, removing firearms and other lethal means from the home, giving a list of resources for help and support, and helping them to get professional help.

At the same time, especially when suicidal thoughts and behaviors persist for many months or years, loved ones may come to a point where they have to recognize their limitations.  In some important ways, their hands are tied.

Recognizing My Own Limitations with a Loved One

I came to the realization many years ago that I could not fully protect a close friend from suicide. She went through an extremely suicidal time for over a year. One night, she came to my house at midnight with her wrist bleeding. She had attempted suicide. She refused to let me call an ambulance, and it even took much persuading before she would let me take her to the ER. They gave her stitches and discharged her to my house (she refused hospitalization and did not meet criteria for involuntary commitment). The doctors advised me to remove all sharp implements and pills from her reach.

My friend stayed with me a couple days. When she went back home, I was left with this feeling of abject helplessness, this recognition that she might kill herself, and also this sudden acceptance that ultimately I could not control if she died by suicide.

Even when she was at my house, even with all my sharp implements and pills hidden in the locked trunk of my car, I could not have prevented her suicide. I had to use the bathroom sometimes. I had to sleep. She could have walked out the door at any time and found other sharp implements, pills or means to die by suicide. Ultimately, though I did what I could, I was helpless.

Recognizing Your Limitations

Storm of suicidal family memberNo matter how desperately you may wish otherwise, there is only so much you can do to stop another person from dying by suicide. You cannot monitor a family member or friend every second of the day. You cannot remove all means for suicide entirely from their world. Although you can talk with them about their suicidal thoughts, you cannot read their mind if they choose not to share them.

Even professionals are not fully able to prevent suicides. One study found that almost 1 in 5 people who died by suicide had seen a mental health professional within 30 days of their death.  That means that in the United States, with almost 43,000 people dying by suicide in 2014, more than 8,000 of them had recently seen a mental health professional. A study in Finland found that almost 10% of suicides occurred within 24 hours, at most, of an appointment with a health professional.

Even inside locked psychiatric hospital units, even when patients are under constant supervision, some patients die by suicide. That is staggering. It is also illuminating. If mental health professionals and psychiatric hospitals cannot prevent all suicides, then how can friends and family be expected to do so?

Coping with Your Limitations

When I realized my inherent limitations with my friend, I came up with a saying (I’m sure I’m not the first):

Do everything you can, but know you can’t do everything. 

It is hard, terribly hard, to sit with the fundamental helplessness you may feel about your loved one who is in danger of suicide.  At these times, it can be helpful to really recognize that most people who end up dying by suicide have depression, post-traumatic stress or another mental illness, a genuine and sometimes severe illness, just like cancer or heart disease. Although the illness is treatable in most cases, and although most suicidal people go on to live many years without ever dying by suicide, the illness might prove to be fatal.

Michael J. Gitlin, M.D., is a psychiatrist who lost a patient to suicide shortly after  finishing his psychiatric residency. He wrote about his experience in a poignant journal article.  As somebody who specialized in treating people with severe depression, he articulated the high probability of suicide among some of his patients. He came to accept that his work was like that of a doctor working with cancer patients: Not everyone could be saved.

I am not saying that loved ones and therapists should not do what they can to prevent a person’s suicide. Of course they should! Many lives have been saved by the actions of concerned others who did their best to help. But if a life is lost, that does not necessarily mean that anyone failed, that anyone made a grave mistake, that anyone is to blame.

You do everything you can, with the understanding that “everything you can” cannot be everything. 

EDITED: February 5, 2015

*© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All rights Reserved. Written For: Speaking of Suicide

Photos purchased from Fotolia.

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  1. Mason says:

    I suffer from bipolar depression, and severe anxiety… people around me say they care and love me, but I don’t doubt that they could get over it if I did take my life….

  2. kara j says:

    Living with a family member who constantly threatens suicide. He has a toddler daughter. He sleeps all day and plays video games all night. He eats terribly and is sedentary and is becoming ill because of it. He’s bitter and mean and refuses help. It’s going on two years now. He refuses to work and just keeps taking. If questioned he says just wait and see I’ll kill myself. Ten years ago he was committed for a year after trying to kill himself. What the fuck am I supposed to do. He’s hurting our family and his child. Of course we want to help but what are we supposed to do. We can’t just keep having talks.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Some of the phrasing in the article suggests that mental illness is not a real illness. Compared to “genuine illness…like cancer or heart disease”

    Thanks for trying, but that is quite a flub.

  4. greenmonks says:

    Just want to be loved unconditionally. Just once.but who cares? nobody.

  5. Ann says:

    When you loose who you are, you’ve lost everything!!
    Fighting to find myself again, but feeling like a wound up clock and the spring is going to break!
    Verbal abuse is worse than physical abuse..I know..I’ve had both!
    But when you are demeaned and nothing you do is ever right and you fight daily to just get up, I wonder if I will ever get my self with back.
    I’m lost! But I’m fighting to recover! Ty

  6. Mara says:

    I hate it not being within my control, and with my boyfriend’s mom NEVER getting back to me when I call and text her frantically because he’s threatening suicide I feel absolutely hopeless. He texted until 11:19 last night, said he was going to try to sleep. I have not heard from him since, normally he’s up by ten. I have no idea what to do, his mom ignores me, I don’t know his dad’s number, he has no other relatives I know that I can contact. I’m terrified that later today I’ll find out he’s dead, and I feel absolutely helpless. He lives 7 hours away, I don’t know what the hell to do.

  7. I’m writing this on the first day of Suicide Prevention Week for 2015, a week in which I can expect to be inundated with “Know the signs” messages. Those are good messages, but I have lost a younger brother, an ex-fiancee and a childhood best friend to suicide, and none of these deaths happened because I or anyone else missed signs. Other people and I cared deeply about these precious individuals and their struggles. We offered what practical help we could, connected them with professional resources, sought emergency help when needed, and always made sure they knew that they were loved and not alone.

    Along with the lists of signs to look for, I wish we had received more messages about our limits, about how to make peace–both pre and post-mortem–with the disturbing reality that someone who is not being swayed from a determination to exit this world will likely find a way to exit, regardless of the best efforts of others. I wish we had received guidance on how to both care for an individual in turmoil and protect ourselves from the manipulation and abusive behavior that can come with the very real pain and very real desire to die. I wish we had been taught the value of being a source of comfort to someone, even if that comfort does not prolong that someone’s life at all, or as much as we would like. I wish we were talking more about the conditions that set the stage for suicidal ideation–abuse, poverty, addiction; etc.–so that more could be done before people are in a state of desperation and even delusion, from which they cannot or will not extricate themselves. In the case of my friend, his family, other friends, and I wish that, when faced with an intractable illness from which there was no relief, he had been provided a way to die a more dignified death, and we had been provided with ways to support him in an entirely rational decision.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      Beautifully and poignantly said. I completely agree. I think there is potential for harm in the “suicide is preventable” messages. Saying that suicide is always preventable implies that the people around the person did not do enough to prevent the death. In reality, although undoubtedly there are some cases where the suicide might have been preventable, there are many cases where people did everything they could to keep the person alive. And the person still died.

      More recently, various mental health organizations have embraced a goal of zero suicides. This “zero suicide” movement has the same potential for harm, in my opinion. We must remain vigilant against suicide’s forces and do everything within our power to help the person resist those forces. But we must also recognize that sometimes suicide simply happens even with people’s best and proper efforts, and nobody is to blame but the forces of suicide themselves.

      I am very sorry for your losses. You described very well the needs that you and other loss survivors have had, both before and after the deaths. I am grateful that you recognize the limitations that you operated under, without blaming yourself. May others extend that compassion to themselves, as well.

    • MelandCJ says:

      Thank you for sharing your articulate, well thought out and pain. I am saddened for your loss…nothing prepares you for that. Protect and look after you now. Good things and happy times, Blessings, to you from here

  8. Tamieka says:

    I am in need of guidance on a situation at hand this moment. May I humbly seek your wisdom? 

    For years I have opend my home to family and friends who were in need of shelter and food, some left here in peace, some left here not in peace. I have an extremely hard time saying no to those who reach out to me because of my kindess, loving spirit I have”. I am the oldest of 7 that is trying to help the 7th child. I didnt know that he was hooked on p.c.p and meth till recently in march. Of 2015 I drove for 2 hours from my home in attemp to “save” him when I got a call he (21) attempted suicide. When my brother was living in my home, I was able to get him mental help with medication, take him to councling, during the process, ive lost sleep and became stressed by giving all my time and energy over his paranoia at the same time going to school. One day he left my home to “supposedly” refill his medication, I get a call that he was having an episode, instead of refilling his meds, he purchased marijuana when he was not suppose to as that will make his paranoia worse creating major episodes. During the 2 months he was here, I made sure he did everything he was supposed to do, as well help him get back to his normal weight. The issue I am having now is he left my home 3 weeks ago to return for work, I gave him instructions on all that he needed to keep him on track as far as meditation on the scriptures, prayer, going to councling, and continued taking meds. Since he left, he attempted a 2nd suicide after getting high. And he calls again to come back. At this point, I really dont want him back here because my children of seen these episodes (twice) and have been exposed to these negative images, that I feel I bought upon myself in attemp to help him. He has not done anything to help himself since he left here and I am torn on not allowing him to return for fear of saying no that he will try to hurt himself. People that I help feel that my home is safe heaven. This is stressful and drains my energy as I will have to keep an eye on him 24 hours, the last attemp he dis not wake his girlfriend up, he attemped while she was sleeping and I fear this. I have a teenager and 2 small children. If I allow him to return, he has to quit his job, that will means missed car payments, I am already struggling myself, so how will I be able to care for my brother who refuse to take responsibility for his action? He lives with my mom who is currently taking care of my grandmother so that is stress on her. This feels like a burden, I feel if my brother followed what he was supposed to be doing, he will be okay but because he did not, I am stuck to care for him. I was suppose to move to a great oppertunity and ended up dropping it due to his paranoia over gangs (which he claim he does not gang anymore) I am seeking families who have dealt with this kinda of stuff. It ia a first for myself and my family. He ia extremely depressed. Please help!

  9. Dave27 says:

    I don’t think there is any good evidence that anyone can prevent suicide. The studies are clearly difficult to do, but admission is largely undertaken to protect the health professionals from litigation. A study comparing inpatient and day hospital care showed no differences in suicidal ideation and rates

  10. Anonymous says:

    Or here’s a thought. Stop pretending you care only when we reached the brink.

    It’s plenty of back rubs and jolly goods when they blip about it and it’s often no one caring beforehand that builds to it.

    Your entire list of suggestions is only focused on people who are claiming to be suicidal. There is no hint or speech ever pertaining to how to live with people whom are constantly depressed or may feel life is meaningless (hint: you probably shouldn’t bother). All the prevention focuses on: but … But… I will be sad! You will burden me! Blah blah blah.

    So do humanity a favor and stop pretending to care.

    • Ted says:

      I agree, the only reason people care at that point is so they can play hero.

    • MelandCJ says:

      I’m not here to fight but my hands are tied- I DO live with someone with depression, anger and social issues. It’s so hard and hurtful, he’s hurt me- crushed me so much to the point where I’m suicidal and can’t support him 24/7. I need sleep, I need to look after my child and go to work to pay HIS bills.
      I try my best but I have a child who means the world to me and I just can’t be there 24/7, I get so little sleep that I’ve crashed a car twice, once trying to get him to hospital. I’m dying but I’m supporting him! If I didn’t care I wouldn’t have spent thousands of dollars and all my time on him. Please be careful with what you say to someone who is a carer and IS trying their beat but can barely support them, they need sleep, the abuse I get would make even you feel like nothing can be done. Don’t judges omens who is trying to help, they need to eat, they need sleep, they need to earn money so they CaN help, they need to be careful They don’t end up so depressed themselves they can’t love….they have to Live a life , study or work, function as a person needs to.
      Depression and protection of self can seem selfish, suicidal threats can be selfish- hence I haven’t done it yet.
      If someone says they can’t help, it’s probably the best they can do for someone- so that person learns to help themselves!
      Take care and look after you

  11. Georgia Y says:

    My mother killed herself 5 years ago today a few days before her 60th birthday. Her first attempt was 6 years before I was born when she was 16. She tried to kill herself so many times I always thought that was how her life would end. When she finally succeeded in killing herself I was still shocked and have found it hard to forgive her and myself. Your articles have been incredibly helpful to me – especially the questions you suggest the reader asks themselves. Thank you for publishing these articles. Georgia

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      How sad for you, your mother, and your family. Those feelings of forgiveness are elusive for many survivors of suicide loss, whether forgiveness of oneself, the person who died by suicide, or both.

      I hope you will consider reading the posts “If Only”: Self-Blame After a Loved One’s Suicide and Do You Blame Yourself for Thinking of Suicide? Both posts cast the blame where it ultimately and truly lies – on the forces of suicide themselves, which might be mental illness, substance use, irrational thinking, trauma, impulsivity, or other factors that can fuel suicidal thoughts, desires, and actions.

      Thank you for your feedback. It’s great to know that my site has been helpful to you in some way!

  12. Rethink says:

    I posted here yesterday on an article entitled “Letter from a Therapist to a Suicidal Person” thinking it really needed some improvement and alternative perspective. After reading this article, I feel even stronger that Stacy might be doing more harm that good writing these articles. I doubt these are intentional, but there might be motives and biases behind what is causing these problems…..Ok, WHAT DO I MEAN? Right?
    First, there is this assumption that it is better to talk to someone getting paid to do this rather than getting genuine love and care from people who may actually care about the suicidal person. Honestly, mainstream psychology has convinced everyone that they are always the better option than getting help and love from people who genuinely care…think about that for a minute if you really care about preventing suicide. Do you think there isn’t some level of a person’s consciousness that realizes that the person who is a “professional” isn’t willing to take the time to talk to them unless that professional is going to get paid? Ask yourself realistically: is it possible that maybe the person who is suicidal just isn’t getting what they need from the people who genuinely care about them? Honestly….how is a “professional” who comes up with labels, and drugs going to replace that?!!! Before moving on from this, here is an article that I think everyone visiting this page should look at if you really care about doing all you can to prevent suicide….these professionals aren’t always what they are cracked up to be…… http://www.madinamerica.com/2014/08/alternatives-suicide/
    Another thing this article does is perpetuate a myth and thought pattern that many in the mental health profession have prevaricated with for years; that anyone who is disgusted with life is mentally ill, and incapable of logical thought. At least that is what is implied here: “it can be helpful to really recognize that your loved one has an illness, a genuine and sometimes severe illness, just like cancer or heart disease”….while this might be a popular opinion to many who simply don’t understand those with suicidal thoughts, perhaps it is those people themselves that are in a sort of denial of reality. What if the person with suicidal thoughts are being honest with themselves about limitations? What if those people just need others they are surrounded by to understand them, and to listen to them in an open-minded fashion? When you have “professionals” discrediting anything the person says this way, how will they ever get their voice heard?!! If they can’t be heard, how are the problems that might be causing the suicidal thoughts in the first place ever going to be alleviated? Even in this article, there was no mention of what might have caused that friend to slash her wrists…..if you never treat these people as PEOPLE and not a DISEASE, how can you expect them to feel any sense of hope? Honestly, I would challenge anyone who supports this article to answer these questions. Can you honestly say this approach is treating the person with the respect they might need? Perhaps they need some help, but that doesn’t mean this approach is the help they need.
    Finally, maybe there are things loved ones could have done. Do you honestly believe that if everyone was doing all they could to prevent suicide it would be happening as much? Often times it is things in one’s environment that cause the suicidal person to look at that as an option. Do you honestly think that person has never tried to change themselves to fit into a society? Do you honestly think they haven’t worked on themselves? Sometimes a person needs a little cooperation from their environment, and they simply aren’t getting it. Like it or not, some people have a much easier path through life than others. Is it really that bad to challenge yourself to grow, and accept that pain you feel as a motivation to never let that happen again to others? The danger with this article is it almost says “its ok to keep doing the same things, and move on with out trying to figure out how you can limit what you might be doing to support a suicidal environment”. What do I mean by a “suicidal environment”? I mean behaving in a way that makes a person feel trapped and hopeless. A few examples might be dismissing a person’s needs to see their efforts appreciated like telling them a meal was terrible rather than helping them make a better one….or ignoring a person’s ideas that might help them advance a career… Ask yourself, aren’t there little things you could change about yourself that might enable you to create a more comfortable environment to some of the most vulnerable people you cross paths with?
    In the end, it seems like this article is doing something good by comforting those who have lost a loved one, but is it REALLY preventing suicide, or possibly in danger of contributing to some of the causes of suicide? Ask yourself that if you really care about prevention….I would love to hear anyone who thinks there isn’t truth in this response. I honestly think psychologists are causing as many problems these days as they are solving.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      I appreciate feedback, whether critical or positive, and in that vein I appreciate yours. I am very confused, though, by some of your comments about what I wrote. I simply did not say most of the things that you criticize me for saying or supposedly assuming.

      I do agree with one of your criticisms, which is that I should not convey that everyone who dies by suicide has a mental illness. This was an error on my part. I will change the wording shortly to be clear that most people who die by suicide have a mental illness.

      Thanks for contributing your comments to the site. I always welcome viewpoints that challenge my own. Suicide is a profoundly complex subject. The more people question it, perhaps the closer we will come to answers.

    • Rethink says:

      Thank you for responding Stacy… I hope you will take the following quotes and try and see the parallels between the assumptions I say you made, and some of what you stated above here:
      In your second paragraph you state: “There are many things that loved ones of a suicidal individual can do to help – things like asking directly about suicidal thoughts, fully listening to the person, providing nonjudgmental emotional support, removing firearms and other lethal means from the home, giving a list of resources for help and support, and helping them to get professional help.” Then you state later “If mental health professionals and psychiatric hospitals cannot prevent all suicides, then how can friends and family be expected to do so?” which can easily suggest that the “professional” who gets paid is the best suited to fix the problems…well that isn’t always the case. You did mention other things that could be done, but it is important to note that pros are always the best option. You don’t have to watch a lot of news, TV, or even be out in the public long to see this belief and it is reiterated here.
      I appreciate that you agree that not everyone who commits suicide has an “illness” and it can be important to listen and realize what others might be doing to contribute to the helplessness one may be feeling, or may be failing to do to help them see any genuine reason for hope.
      Just looking at the title of the article, and the visualization attached, it can be easy for people who really DIDN’T do all they could to say, “well, we tried to get them to see a professional; that’s all we could do”. What if there are people who could involve those suicidal in healthy activities like hiking, in a comfortable environment so the person has a chance to clear their head even with a friend they trust? What if a common friend might have a project in a community the suicidal person might benefit from being a part of? Networking can help. Being a friend that listens and carefully connects the suicidal person to good environments might be fruitful! What about not cramming things down your kids throats that might not be beneficial for them?!! Look, about 20 years ago, people crammed the concept of staying in school and going to college down kids throats, over-saturating markets, saddling a generation with debt and taking what was more of a guarantee and turning it into more of a gamble…… many students felt they had to go to school rather than making a solid choice about what was best for them. Many people take on too many challenges and aren’t good parents, or simply move on from those they say they love because a relationship gets a little uncomfortable for a while. There are many suggestions here that there are limitations on those who are supporting friends. I know good people who could do a lot more for me….and I have suggested those things. However, because they are convinced that therapists are the answer to everything, they don’t really want to do what they could, and just pass the buck when things get ugly. Without telling you all about my history, and some of the brainwashing psychotherapists have done on society, I can tell you they have made my issues even worse, and every time I give them a chance, the shrinks seem to fall short of doing what I would honestly need to make life complete. Please, re-read your article, and ask yourself this one question: “Have I really asked people to carefully separate the balance between coping out by passing the buck to others, and honestly doing all they could do?” I don’t see much that guards against people saying “I have done my best” when they might not have. Some have, and honestly couldn’t do more, but if you don’t challenge people to be more sensitive to those who get to this point in life, you aren’t ever going to be more effective. I hope this helps you. I know my opinions aren’t always in the majority, but I have been right many times before when a majority population wasn’t. (school, therapy, etc)

  13. Kelly says:

    Thank you for this.

  14. jennifer says:

    Thank you for this post.

  15. Phyllis Mikity says:

    It is not the thoughts of suicide, it is the act. One may realize that any person cannot change the thoughts of another, but the pain of helplessness is always there.

  16. Gale says:

    So loved these thoughts. I just lost my daughter to suicide 7 weeks ago today. She hung herself in our basement. I was right upstairs and had jut talked with her. She seemed fine. What guilt I feel.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Hello Gale, I am so very sorry to read about your daughter. The loss is so recent and fresh. Guilt is a common emotion following the suicide of a family member or friend. The people close to the person ask themselves all sorts of painful questions. What could I have done to prevent this? Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t she tell me?

      I hope that this post helps you and others to accept that you could not have done everything. You already have to cope with so much in terms of the death of your daughter. Beating yourself up about it only makes it harder. Perhaps you do recognize something that you realistically could have done differently. If so, I hope you will practice forgiveness and compassion for yourself.

      I also hope you are getting the support you need. Have you considered talking with other people who have lost a loved one to suicide? There are many support groups around the country, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an outreach program where a suicide survivor will come to your house. For more information, please check out the Resources page on this site, specifically the section for people who have had a loved one die by suicide. You may also find this site’s article Coping with the Suicide of a Loved One to be useful.

      Thanks for writing, Gale, and please feel free to write again and share how you are doing.