One. Point. Four. Million.
That’s how many reported suicide attempts there were in just the United States in 2017. As many attempts as there were, how many more reports of suicidal thoughts were there? Did you know someone who told you they were suicidal, attempted suicide, or was successful in their attempt? Often, when someone tells you they’re suicidal, there are two responses: you shut down and act like what they just said didn’t happen; or you overreact, freak out, and become the overbearing person you never wanted to be.
There are two primary things someone who is suicidal needs: professional help and a friend. But how do you be a good friend to someone who is suicidal? How can you be someone who will love said person enough to be gentle in attempts to understand what your friend is going through, yet tough enough to bear the super raw emotions and love them enough to get them the help they need? It’s not a task anybody necessarily chooses, but one that is absolutely imperative to survival.
First and foremost, being a friend to someone who is suicidal requires loving them. This may not have been something you were ready to deal with; however, this person has trusted you enough to expose what is, perhaps, the rawest part of their heart. Treasure that. I won’t coddle you by saying this will be an easy journey for you. Loving someone who is suicidal can - and likely will - be draining. Loving them can mean several things, such as: speaking up if you’re worried, responding quickly in a crisis, and offering help and support.
Speak up. There are several warning signs to look out for. A suicidal person may casually talk about suicide, have a preoccupation with death, be seeking out lethal means, have no hope for the future, express self-loathing or hatred, be getting their affairs in order, withdrawing and/or saying goodbye to friends and family, show self-destructive behavior, or suddenly be much calmer than they once were. If you spot the warning signs of suicide in someone you care about, you may wonder if it’s a good idea to say anything. What if you’re wrong? What if the person gets angry? In such situations, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable or afraid. But anyone who talks about suicide or shows other warning signs needs immediate help—the sooner the better. Talking to a friend about their suicidal thoughts and feelings can be extremely difficult for anyone. But if you’re unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask. You can’t make a person suicidal by showing that you care. In fact, giving a suicidal person the opportunity to express his or her feelings can provide relief from loneliness and pent-up negative feelings, and may prevent a suicide attempt.
Respond quickly in a crisis. If a friend tells you they’re suicidal or thinking about death, it’s important to evaluate the immediate danger they’re in. Those at the highest risk for committing suicide in the near future have a specific suicide plan, the means to carry out the plan, a time set for doing it, and an intention to do it. The following questions can help you assess the immediate risk for suicide:
Do you have a suicide plan? (PLAN)
Do you have what you need to carry out your plan (pills, gun, etc.)? (MEANS)
Do you know when you would do it? (TIME SET)
Do you intend to take your own life? (INTENTION)
Assessing level of suicide risk can be difficult, but here’s a quick guide:
Low – Some suicidal thoughts. No suicide plan. Says he or she won’t attempt suicide.
Moderate – Suicidal thoughts. Vague plan that isn’t very lethal. Says he or she won’t attempt suicide.
High – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she won’t attempt suicide.
Severe – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she will attempt suicide.
If a suicidal threat seems imminent, call 9-1-1 and report it immediately, no matter what the cost of your friendship may seem in the moment. It’s possible your friend will tell you they hate you, they’ll never speak to you again, etc. Please, I beg of you, do not let those words stop you from doing what is right. In the moment, your friend’s emotions will be heightened, they will feel everything so strongly that they may not be able to control themselves. I promise, they most likely will not be angry at you forever. Even if they are, is their anger worth saving their life?
Offer help and support. Let your friend know that he or she is not alone and that you care. Don’t take responsibility, however, for healing your loved one. You can offer support, but you can’t make a suicidal person get better. He or she has to make a personal commitment to recovery. Witnessing a loved one dealing with thoughts about ending his or her own life can stir up many difficult emotions. As you’re helping a suicidal person, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Find someone that you trust—a friend, family member, clergyman, or counselor—to talk to about your feelings and get support of your own.
To help someone who is suicidal:
Encourage them to get professional help. Do everything in your power to get a suicidal person the help he or she needs. Call a crisis line for advice and referrals. Encourage the person to see a mental health professional, help locate a treatment facility, or take them to a doctor’s appointment.
Follow up on treatment. If the doctor prescribes medication, make sure your friend or loved one takes it as directed. Be aware of possible side effects and be sure to notify the physician if the person seems to be getting worse. It often takes time and persistence to find the medication or therapy that’s right for a particular person.
Be proactive. Those contemplating suicide often don’t believe they can be helped, so you may have to be more proactive at offering assistance. Saying, “Call me if you need anything” is too vague. Don’t wait for the person to call you or even to return your calls. Drop by, call again, invite the person out.
Encourage positive lifestyle change, such as a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, and getting out in the sun or into nature for at least 30 minutes each day. Exercise is also extremely important as it releases endorphins, relieves stress, and promotes emotional well-being.
Make a safety plan. Help the person develop a set of steps he or she promises to follow during a suicidal crisis. It should identify any triggers that may lead to a suicidal crisis, such as an anniversary of a loss, alcohol, or stress from relationships. Also include contact numbers for the person’s doctor or therapist, as well as friends and family members who will help in an emergency.
Remove potential means of suicide, such as pills, knives, razors, or firearms. If the person is likely to take an overdose, keep medications locked away or give them out only as the person needs them.
Continue your support over the long haul. Even after the immediate suicidal crisis has passed, stay in touch with the person, periodically checking in or dropping by. Your support is vital to ensure your friend or loved one remains on the recovery track.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned someone who’s suicidal needs, they need a friend. Being someone to lean on, talk to, offer love and support, and push them towards the help they need can mean the difference between life and death for them. It makes a world of difference.
Trust me. I have been one of those people - it made a difference for me.
If you or a friend are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at this number: 1-800-273-8255 or click HERE for the Crisis Text Line.
If you would like more information about counseling services, check out our Counseling Page HERE.