What To Do When Someone You Love Is Suicidal
I wanted to write this because I've struggled with depression a lot in my life. I've been suicidal before and experienced people handling my feelings poorly. I've also had friends who were suicidal and I helped them work through it. It's a very emotion driven situation and has to be handled carefully. Here are some tips on how to handle it when someone tells you they are suicidal.
#1 Let Go Of Control
I think this is the one thing people have the most trouble with when it comes to seeing someone who is suffering. They want to "fix" the person or the situation. They want to take control and make everything better.
But mental illness is something people have to deal with on their own. We can be their support systems, cheer them on, and encourage them. It will make things easier for them. But they have to be the one who wakes up with depression everyday and finds ways to cope with it. You can't do this for them. You can't control their actions or their feelings. Sometimes you can give them advice that helps, but this is rare since they live with the situation every day and probably know more than other people about what it feels like to have depression (and how to cope with it.)
A lot of people feel responsible for things that they have zero responsibility over. Other people's actions have nothing to do with you (unless you were purposefully trying to hurt them.) So if you don't handle a suicidal person "perfectly" and they kill themselves, it's not your fault. It's important to let go and not hold someone else's choices on your shoulders.
It will help you stay calm and rational in the situation if you realize this.
#2 Listen Rather Than Speak
Most people have a lot of advice they like to give. They want to "fix" people that are struggling.
There's advice everywhere. What there's very little of is listening.
Sometimes depressed people have trouble opening up, so when they do open up, it's very important that you pay attention.
The best way for people to work through their feelings is to work them out through speech or writing. It helps people work through their thoughts when they can get those thoughts out of just their head in some way. When people say things out loud, it can help them deal with feelings they were avoiding and work through events.
Also, suicidal people sometimes view platitudes as meaningless. Words like,"Things will get better" or "It's always darkest before the dawn" or especially "God never gives you more than you can handle", might fall on deaf ears. Sometimes those words can help, but most of the time they don't. Especially when people feel like they can't handle it anymore and are suicidal. Saying that God wouldn't give them so much pain that they couldn't handle it anymore (which is the same as being given so much that you become suicidal) is saying their feelings are untrue, Those words will sound heartless to someone who is suicidal.
What they want is someone who will say,"I'll be there for you" and for that person to just listen. You don't have to have the right words. You just have to have the right heart.
#3 Ask Them If They've Made Plans
It's important to figure out how serious the suicide threat they are making is. There are degrees of suicidal feelings.
A lot of people contemplate ending their life. They're really depressed at the time, but they don't necessarily feel strongly enough to actually go through with it. (You should still take them seriously, though, or their suicidal feelings might increase.) For some, it might just be an option they are thinking about. After talking to you a few times about it and finding solutions or hope to their problems, they might get over it.
You can find out how much of a danger someone is to themselves by finding out if they've made plans.
People who aren't a serious danger to themselves usually have no idea how they'd kill themselves. Maybe they thought about their options briefly, but nothing too elaborate. They're in the stage where they are just contemplating their options.
People who are more of a danger to themselves on the other hand probably have a definitive plan in their head. They might have researched it online. They know in detail how they want to kill themselves and what method they want to use. These people you should be very concerned with, but it might not be necessary to call the cops yet.
The people you probably want to call the cops with are the people who have taken it even further than this. If they tell you they've already bought the gun to kill themselves with and written the suicide note or something. If they tell you they've picked a date already and are counting down the days. If they say they've already attempted something close to suicide, like they practiced slitting their wrists to see what it's like, but not so deep that they died yet. These people are a high danger to themselves.
But regardless of which stage they are in, you should take their feelings seriously because all stages of suicidal feelings can be dangerous.
So in summary...
1. Someone who is just contemplating suicide is low risk.
2. Someone who is making a specific suicide plan is medium risk.
3. Someone who has taken steps towards committing suicide, who has actually started to act on it, is very high risk. You should call the cops.
4. All should be taken seriously, so things don't get worse, but the further along they are on the list, the more of a danger they are to themselves.
#4 Take Them Seriously
You should assess whether someone is at high risk for suicide, not because you should brush their feelings off if they aren't, but so you know whether or not you need to call the cops.
All people who are suicidal are depressed. All of them are struggling. All of them need help. Their feelings need to be heard and taken seriously if they are going to get better.
This is very important, since a lot of people try to coax people into committing suicide if they don't believe they are serious. They'll say things like,"If you really wanted to kill yourself, then you'd do it already." This can push people further towards suicide. They might become more of a danger to themselves than before. Maybe they were just contemplating it before, but now they are making plans.
We want them to get better, not worse. Mocking their feelings or brushing them off will help nothing.
#5 Keep Your Own Emotions Out Of It
This is a really hard one for most people. The worst thing you can do when someone you care about is an emotional mess is to become an emotional mess yourself.
It's natural to feel angry or sad when you hear that someone you care about is suicidal. You can deal with those feelings elsewhere. Right now you just need to take care of the person you care about. That means being calm and empathetic.
If you react by bursting into tears or yelling, that can sometimes make the suicidal person more suicidal. They might see it as disappointing you. They might think that they really are being too much of a burden on the people they care about and it would be better if they were gone.
They won't share with you anymore because they don't want to see you get emotional again. Letting your own emotions get involved can prevent you from helping them. Worst of all, some of them might decide that it's too upsetting to talk to anyone about their feelings and they'll get trapped in their own head. Being trapped in your own head when you're suicidal is dangerous.
Of course you can say that you care about them and that you'd be sad if they were gone. You can tell them you love them and things like that. What I am talking about is yelling at them and saying they're horrible and selfish. I'm talking about asking questions like: "Why do you want to hurt me in this way?" or crying hysterically at every word they say. Then you are making them comfort you when they turned to you for help, not the other way around.
It's really scary to hear the words "suicide" coming from someone you care about, but when you let fear dictate your actions, you making mistakes.
#6 Give Them Information
Give them things to cling to when they feel desperate. Give them your phone number when they are feeling suicidal and tell them that they can call you even if it's the middle of the night. (Don't make this promise unless you can keep it!) Suicidal people often have problems in the middle of the night, so this can be really helpful. Give them numbers for suicide hotlines and hospitals they can check themselves into if they're worried that they're too much of a danger to themselves. Give them a phone number of a good therapist you know.
Say there's no pressure for them to use any of these things. (This is important. Remember the step about letting go of control?), Say that the options are available to them if they need it. You want them to feel safe, not pressured, to come to you for help and comfort. You want them to feel happy about using the resources you gave them, instead of pressured into it.
Tell them there is nothing shameful about needing help and that we all need help sometimes.
But make sure the entire conversation isn't you giving them information. Make sure the majority of it is them talking about themselves.
#7 Don't Make Threats
The times I was the most suicidal were the times when I kept my suicidal feelings secret. When you're talking about suicide, you're usually not committing suicide. You are holding off, maybe five minutes, maybe an hour, maybe a day. You are talking about it because you are trying to work through it.
So people with suicidal feelings should be encouraged to talk. This is not a guarantee that they won't attempt suicide, but it makes it a lot less likely.
The problem is, a lot of people, especially in support groups will make threats. They'll say,"If you tell the group that you're suicidal, then we're going to call the cops on you."
Suicidal people feel hopeless, helpless, and like life is out of control. When you make threats like that, threats to take away all the little control they have over the situation by involving the cops if they so much as speak about their feelings, then you are making them stay silent. They want to know that expressing such a vulnerable thing to you will bring understanding. They want to get some of the pain that constantly plagues them off their chest. Saying you'll call the cops makes it sound like depression is some kind of criminal activity and if you ever admit to it, even a little, the authorities will have to get involved and make everything worse.
Of course there are some situations where the cops need to be involved, like I said before, but it's good to have the wisdom to know the difference. Someone who regularly sees a therapist and hasn't actually made any plans to kill themselves is not someone you should probably call the cops on for instance. While someone standing on a ledge saying they're thinking about jumping is someone you should call the cops on immediately.
#8 If Needed, Call The Cops Or Tell Their Parents
I've given you scenarios when it would be wise to call the cops.
If the person is a minor, then it is probably a good idea to tell their parents as well. This way they can take steps towards protecting their child. (Like getting pills from a psychiatrist or getting them counseling.) But I'd recommend doing this when you are alone with the parents. Ask them to keep it a secret that you told them or the minor probably won't trust you in the future and might keep suicidal feelings to themselves.Tell the parents to instead say that they've noticed the child's behavior changing and try to get the child to open up to them directly. (Depression causes behavioral changes, see the video at the top of this page.) If this doesn't work, they can still use that as an excuse to send the child to a therapist.
There are exceptions to this rule. It's important to find out why a minor is suicidal. If it's because they're being abused by their parents in some way, then telling the parents will likely make the situation worse. In that case, you should call child protective services instead.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a weekLanguages: English, Spanish
1 (800) 273-8255