If you’re reading this, chances are you care deeply about someone in your life who is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
It can be difficult to know what to say in this situation—how do you provide support and comfort without making things worse? The good news is that there are things you can say and do to help.
Some of the best things you can do for a loved one with suicidal thoughts include being an active listener, asking direct questions, and helping them create a safety plan.
Through this guide, we aim to empower you with the tools you need to have meaningful, compassionate conversations with someone in crisis.
Understanding the Warning Signs of Suicide
Recognizing the warning signs of suicidal thoughts can be a crucial first step in helping someone in crisis. Some common warning signs to look out for include:
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Giving away prized possessions or saying goodbye to loved ones
- Withdrawing from social activities or friends
- Engaging in reckless or risky behaviours
- Sudden changes in mood or behaviour
- Talking about wanting to die
If you notice any of these warning signs in someone you care about, it’s important to take them seriously. By being aware of the warning signs, you can potentially intervene and provide support before it’s too late.
How to Communicate with Someone Who Is Suicidal
Having a conversation with someone who is suicidal can be challenging, but it’s an important step in providing support and potentially preventing a tragedy. Starting the conversation is often the hardest part, but by showing compassion and empathy, you can make a real difference in someone’s life.
Ask Direct Questions
If you’re concerned a friend or loved one may be having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to ask them directly. This may sound something like, “You’ve made comments about wanting to die. Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
Opening up the discussion directly lets them know it’s okay to talk about the subject, which they may feel hesitant to bring up on their own.
Be an Active Listener
One of the most important things you can do is to be an active listener. This means giving the person your full attention, showing empathy, and responding in a non-judgmental way. A key component of active listening is evaluating the level of danger your loved one may be in.
There are several things you’ll want to keep in mind as you evaluate the level of danger: Do they have a plan? How detailed is it? How lethal are the means? Is it available? If there is immediate danger, call 911.
Active listening involves several key strategies:
- Show that you’re fully present in the moment and not distracted by other concerns.
- Use open-ended questions to encourage the person to share their thoughts and feelings.
- Reflect back what the person has said so they feel heard and understood.
- Avoid the urge to offer solutions or advice and instead focus on understanding the person’s perspective.
Things You Can Say to Offer Support
When someone is feeling suicidal, finding the right words to say can be challenging. However, there are ways to express your care and compassion. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to fix the person or solve their problems—simply being there to listen and offer support can make a tremendous difference.
During these conversations, it’s crucial to adopt a gentle approach and consider your tone of voice. You can gently challenge your loved one’s reasons for considering suicide while offering a hopeful perspective. This may sound something 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…”
Express your genuine belief that things will improve, and recognize that their willingness to open up about their feelings is a positive step forward. Your presence and willingness to listen can be a lifeline for someone who may be questioning their decision.
Here are a few examples of phrases that may be helpful:
- “I’m here for you.” This simple phrase lets the person know that you’re available to listen and support them.
- “I care about you.” Reminding the person that they are loved and valued can be a powerful message of support.
- “You don’t have to go through this alone.” Feeling isolated can be a major contributor to suicidal thoughts.
- Speak from the heart. While it can be difficult to find the right words, sharing your genuine thoughts and feelings can often make the biggest impact.
Language to Avoid
When communicating with someone who’s feeling suicidal, it’s important to be mindful of language that can be harmful or potentially make things worse. Here are a few communication styles to avoid:
- Avoid using judgmental or dismissive language, such as telling the person they’re being “dramatic” or “overreacting.” This can cause them to feel invalidated or dismissed.
- Don’t try to minimize their struggles or offer simplistic solutions. Saying things like, “Just cheer up” or “Things will get better,” can come across as dismissive or unrealistic.
- Don’t promise confidentiality if the person is in immediate danger. If the person is at risk of harming themselves, it’s important to seek professional help immediately.
How Can You Keep Someone Safe in a Crisis?
If you’re concerned that someone you know may harm themselves, there are steps you can take to help keep them safe. Please Note: If someone is at imminent risk of harming themselves, safety planning is not possible. Call 911.
Help Them Create a Safety Plan
The safety planning process should begin when your friend or loved one is in a relatively calm state and not currently in crisis or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If you or your friend are in crisis, reach out to Distress Centre at 403-266-4357 for immediate support.
- Step 1: Identify the Warning Signs: this can include increasing feelings of depression, irritability, hopelessness, trouble sleeping, or isolating yourself. Write down these warning signs for reference.
- Step 2: Create a List of Internal Coping Strategies: these activities should help distract them from negative thoughts and feelings of hopelessness, such as going for a walk, listening to uplifting music, taking a shower, playing video games, or spending time with a pet.
- Step 3: Social Strategies: this could involve connecting with a friend or family member directly or simply being in a social environment like a coffee shop or place of worship.
- Step 4: Reach Out to a Trusted Support Person: if possible, identify multiple individuals who can play this role, providing an alternative option if the first person is unavailable. Include their contact information and availability in your safety plan.
- Step 5: Professional Help: options include reaching out to a counsellor, contacting Distress Centre, dialling 911, or calling 211 for local resources. Write down the names and contact information of these professionals or agencies in your safety plan.
- Step 6: Restrict Access: this may involve safely storing firearms or removing access to medication. Identify and eliminate or restrict access to any potentially lethal means.
In an Emergency, Call 911
If the person is in immediate danger, call 911. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you’re concerned about their safety.
After the crisis has passed, check in with the person regularly to see how they’re doing. Offer ongoing support and encourage them to continue seeking help if needed.
Resources You Can Share
If you know someone who is in crisis, it can be helpful to have a list of resources you can share with them. Here are some resources you may want to consider sharing:
- Distress Centre 24-Hour Crisis Line (403-266-4357): You can contact us by texting or calling this number for 24-hour crisis support. We are also available through live chat.
- 211 Alberta: This service can help your loved one find programs and services in their community, including mental health resources, housing support, and more.
- Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566): If your loved one is feeling suicidal or concerned about someone who is suicidal, this national hotline can provide support and guidance.
- AHS Mental Health Help Line (1-877-303-2642): This hotline provides confidential support and information for mental health concerns, and can be a valuable resource for anyone struggling with their mental health.
- Hope for Wellness Helpline (1-855-242-3310): This hotline provides culturally appropriate support and crisis intervention for Indigenous people across Canada.
- Trans Lifeline (1-877-330-6366): If your loved one is trans or gender diverse, this organization can provide them with community support, information, and referrals.
Find Crisis Support with Distress Centre
Supporting a loved one who is experiencing suicidal thoughts can take a toll on your own well-being. Be mindful of your own needs and limitations, and don’t hesitate to seek support from others. Remember, taking care of yourself is not selfish. In fact, it’s essential if you want to be able to offer ongoing support to your loved one.
In moments of crisis, Distress Centre is here to help. Along with our crisis line, we offer access to counselling services, health and government resources, and other forms of support to assist you in moving forward. If you or someone you know is struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for help.