The idea of a loved one taking their own life is enough to frighten anyone. But if you suspect the idea could turn into action, it’s important that you don’t remain frozen in fear—there are steps you can take to address the situation and show your support for your friend or family member.
“There is a myth that talking about suicide will actually make someone more likely to do it,” says Elizabeth Jeglic, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a suicide prevention researcher in New York City. “However, many people are relieved to be able to share their thoughts with someone else.” On top of providing a feeling of relief, Erin O’Callaghan, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and director of therapy at Brightside, a digital mental healthcare company, says your intervention might actually reduce your loved one’s suicidal ideations.
Thoughts about death and dying are not uncommon, especially among individuals struggling with depression, explains Jeglic. But there are signs, she adds, that may indicate someone could be more likely to act on those thoughts.
Common Warning Signs
Someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts may engage in more frequent talk about death and dying, says Jeglic. There may also be a shift in behavior, or you may start seeing certain actions that are out of character.
“You may notice they start giving away possessions, saying goodbye to loved ones, or writing a will,” Jeglic says. “They may hoard pills, get a gun, or try to gain access to other lethal means. They [may] withdraw emotionally from those around them and may isolate more or spend more time in bed.”
Some people might make comments about pain and sadness, says O’Callaghan, suggesting that they can’t make the feelings go away—and that they can’t see a future in which they don’t feel those things.
If your loved one has been coping with depression, you may notice an unusually positive shift in their mood, says Jeglic. “This may be because they have made a decision to end their life and they feel relief that the decision has been made,” she explains.
How to Help
In addition to paying attention to warning signs, there are other things you can do to show up and support someone you care about—to try to help them emerge from the deep despair. If you’re concerned about someone who may be at risk of taking their life, here are four steps experts recommend taking.
1. Channel Your Inner Calm
It can be difficult to retain composure when you’re worried that someone you care about is at risk of ending their life, but keeping calm will help you stay present and avoid overreacting in the moment. Before taking action or opening up the conversation, take a few deep breaths and ground yourself in your environment by tapping into your senses.
2. Assess the Level of Risk
It’s critical to determine whether the situation is active or passive—and to respond accordingly. Someone who is actively considering suicide is in imminent danger, says Clara Monroe, a licensed professional counselor and founder of CRM Counseling, Life Coaching, and Wellness near Houston. “They have a plan, a timeline, and the means to follow their plan,” says Monroe. In that case, seek help right away. She recommends calling 911 and staying with the person—they should not be left alone.
“Passive suicide [risk] means that there isn’t imminent danger,” says Monroe. “They may make vague statements about not wanting to live anymore, such as, ‘Life is too much, it would be okay if I went to sleep and never woke up,’” she says.
If you’re faced with a more passive situation, do your best to offer validation and empathy. Monroe suggests using statements like, “It’s okay to feel sad, unhappy, et cetera, right now. I am here to listen to you and help you get the help you need.”
From there, you can remind them that you’re there to love and support them, suggests Monroe. “Ask the person who they can contact if their suicidal feelings begin to worsen. You can help them make a list of friends, family, mental health professionals, and crisis lines they can call,” she says. You can also try prompting them to open up a bit more about the thoughts they’ve been having and about what additional support they might need in their day-to-day life.
And remember, although an individual passively considering suicide may not need immediate hospitalization, they are still in need of mental health treatment. Jeglic also points out that it’s important to bear in mind that “the more specific and frequent the thoughts, the greater the intent—and higher the risk.”
3. Ask Thoughtful Questions
Though it may be hard to hear someone you care about talk about their struggle with suicidal thoughts, O’Callaghan recommends asking specific questions to better understand what they are going through and how they can best be supported. “You can ask questions like, ‘What feelings are you experiencing right now?’ ‘Do you think about dying?’ ‘How can I help?’ ‘Could you tell me if you’ve been making a plan to take your own life?’”
4. Hold Back Judgment and Listen
As much as you care for your loved one in crisis, you may be met with a flood of difficult emotions toward them, like anger—how could they ever do something so drastic? And confusion—why would they choose this path when they have so much life to live? You may even feel a wave of grief or longing for a different version of your friend or family member, one that is happier and more like their “old self.” Your feelings are valid too, but it’s important to interact with your loved one without judgment.
Monroe suggests avoiding phrases like, “Things are not that bad,” or “You shouldn’t feel this way.” She says phrases like, “I know how you feel,” and “Other people have it worse than you do,” aren’t likely to help either. You also want to avoid being overly positive. Phrases like, “Things are bound to get better,” or “Why are you sad? You have so many good things in your life,” won’t help your loved one feel understood or supported.
Instead, channel your inner compassion. Remind the individual in crisis that they aren’t alone. Jeglic says you can thank them for confiding in you, validate the pain and suffering they are experiencing, and allow your loved one to tell you what they want and need. To convey that you are actively listening, you can also try nodding your head and asking clarifying questions when needed.
“Stay focused on the conversation and don’t be distracted by your phone or other external distractions,” O’Callaghan says. “By actively listening to your loved one about their thoughts of suicide, you are showing them that you care, that you are taking this seriously, and that you are there to help them get through this.”
Where to Get Help
If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time, these organizations may provide assistance:
National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline Call: 800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line Text
“TALK” to 741-741
The TrevorLifeline – serving members of the LGBTQ+ community ages 25 and under
Text “START” to 678-678
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
Article credited to Jessica Hicks on Happify Daily