5 steps to help someone who is having suicidal thoughts
In recent years there has been a push to normalize talking about mental health and mental illness to help end the stigma that surrounds it. But sometimes, even if you have the best intentions, you can find yourself floundering when someone confides in you that they’re struggling with their mental health.
Previously we created a guide to help you support a friend or loved one who is having a difficult time. Today we want to focus on what to do if a friend or family member is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
5. Know the signs
Suicide has a deeper stigma surrounding it than other mental health issues. Someone might be willing to share that they’ve been struggling with depression or anxiety but hold back about thoughts of suicide because they are afraid of how someone might react. Therefore, it is important to recognize the signs that someone might be planning their suicide.
Some of these signs include: a preoccupation with death, getting their affairs in order, saying goodbye and withdrawing from others, to name a few. This article identifies more signs to look for and familiarize yourself with.
Most of the signs connect around hopelessness. The person feels hopeless about their life or aspects of their life and doesn’t see their situation improving, therefore suicide begins to feel like an option.
If someone does share with you that they’re having suicidal thoughts, try to remain calm and be attentive as they tell you what they’re experiencing. Any talk of suicide should be taken very seriously, be calm and do not to freak out, as it may prevent them from talking to you in the future.
4. Start the conversation
If a person does not come right out and tell you, but you suspect they may be suicidal, you need to start the conversation. It is important to be direct in your questioning. Use the word suicide. By asking about it you are letting them know that they can open up to you. For someone who has been experiencing thoughts of suicide but has been too scared to tell someone, having you broach the subject first can be a huge relief.
3. Evaluate the danger
After someone tells you they have been thinking about suicide, you need to evaluate how urgent the situation is. Does the person have a plan? How detailed is that plan? Do they have a where and when? How lethal is their means? Is it available?
Have they attempted suicide before? Another myth is that someone who has attempted will not attempt suicide again. Someone who has previously attempted is actually more at risk of suicide.
Ask them what kind of support(s) they have in their life right now (besides you). Are they seeing a counsellor? Are there other people in their life who they feel comfortable talking to?
2. How to help
If someone is imminently in danger of taking their own life:
• Call EMS/police.
• Take them to the Emergency Room.
• Contact Distress Centre (403-266-4357) and we can connect them with other resources.
Listen actively to why they want to die. Let them to speak openly and honestly and remain calm as they do so. Allow them to say their reasons out loud because this can release emotions and help give them a different perspective about their reasons for dying. By listening to their reasons you can also begin to identify reasons for choosing life.
Listen to what they have to say before you respond. Don’t talk over them in your eagerness to change their mind. By listening attentively you can convey to the person that you care and are empathetic to their situation.
Gently challenge their reasons for considering suicide and push them towards a more hopeful place. Exude hope in your response through your tone of voice, your gentle approach, and your genuine belief that things can get better. Even if no obvious reasons emerge, the fact that they’re speaking to you at all is an indication that they are unsure about this decision.
Be insistent in your response but not too insistent, as they may cause them to feel resentment and shut down. Paraphrase what they have said in combination with the reasons for choosing life.
It might sound like, “Right now suicide appears to be the answer because…. But I also hear you saying that there is a part of you that wants to live because of…”
Offer to help them make a safety plan. This includes things like, removing any easily available means, staying with them through the night, making sure they stay sober and helping them come up with coping methods. One coping method is to create a list of phone numbers of loved ones who they can call when they’re struggling, as well as a list of contact information for crisis lines and emergency services, in case they can’t get a hold of loved ones.
Also talk about long term plans, like connecting them with a counsellor, helping them complete an intake for Distress Centre counselling, or making an appointment if they already have a counsellor.
Check in on your friend frequently in the next days, weeks and months. Mental health issues are not fixed quickly, and checking in on them shows that you care and that you’re available if they want to talk again.
If at any point you are unsure what to do, call or text us 24/7 at 403-266-4357. We’re here to help.
1. Recognize you can’t do everything
Sometimes when you feel you’ve done all you can to help someone who is having suicidal thoughts, you can still end up feeling a sense of emptiness – that you’ve done everything you can and your friend is still struggling.
Understand that you can only do your best, and even when loved ones and health professionals have done all they can to intervene, a person may still die by suicide. It is important that you don’t blame yourself for anything that happens.
Do everything you can, but understand that you can’t do everything.
Helping a friend or loved one through a crisis of this measure can be exhausting. Make sure you’re practicing your own self-care, and ensuring you have supports in place so that your mental health does not suffer. You have to take care of yourself to be able to help someone else.
If you have any questions, need extra support or are struggling in any way to help your friend (or yourself) talk to us! Call or text us 24/7 at 403-266-4357 or chat with us online through our chat portal: