Supporting Someone Who Is Suicidal
Dear Tacit Readers:
This article is Part 2 of last week’s response to a reader who asked about how to recognize if someone is suicidal. I thought it would be important to also talk a little about what we can do to help that person that we suspect is thinking about ending their life.
The first thing we have to do is talk about our concerns with the person who may be showing signs of suicidal thoughts or behaviours. We must always take these warning signals seriously and err on the sign of caution (not be too worried about invading the person’s privacy or of the response we might get).
And we need to talk to the person over and over again – not just once or twice. It’s easy for a person to say everything is fine, when it’s really not. They might not have the energy to explain – they might not have the words to describe how they are feeling – they might not actually fully understand what is wrong – or they might not want to be a burden.
Even if we think the person is seeking attention or being overly dramatic in how they are responding to a situation, we always want to respond in a supportive and caring way. The individual does still need our help in order to ensure things don’t escalate, no matter what the underlying reason for their thoughts might be. It is crucial to take their distress seriously and to intervene promptly. If that person ends up dying, we may end up having a hard time living with the “what-if” guilt that could develop (not that it would be our fault – not at all. We will talk more next week about how difficult it can be for those who are left to carry on after someone dies by suicide).
We can offer support to someone who might be suicidal by:
Initiating a conversation: Express concern and provide a safe space for the person to share their feelings. Avoid judgmental or dismissive statements – we need to let them know that we are just there to support them.
Saying the words and not getting squeamish: Ask the question directly – “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Are you thinking about suicide?”. We need to show the person that we are not too afraid, too uncomfortable, too sensitive or too busy to talk about the real truth of what they are thinking/feeling. Don’t be vague (saying things like “are you thinking about ending it?” or “are you thinking about hurting yourself?” is not enough).
Not keeping the secret: We need to tell others about someone who is suicidal. Secrets about suicidal thoughts/feelings usually come with feelings of shame, guilt and failure. But these secrets have less power over a person when they are shared. By respectfully helping the person open up to others about what they have been going through, the burden of what they have been carrying can lessen. And the more things are discussed, the more hope and options for support can be realized.
Encouraging professional help: Suggest that the person reaches out to mental health professionals, such as a therapist, counsellor, Mental Health Help-line or hospital/doctor. Offer to help them find resources or accompany them to appointments (or find someone who can), if they are too nervous to go alone.
Removing potential means of self-harm from the immediate area: If we are aware of how the person plans to die, we need to try to remove any concerning items from the immediate environment while the person is actively at risk. This can reduce the likelihood of impulsive actions.
Involving trusted individuals: Seek support from the person’s friends, family, or other individuals that they trust. We cannot be this person’s only form of support (for our own sake as well theirs). Building a network of care will help create a stronger protective safety net around the person.
Staying connected and following up: Don’t leave a suicidal person alone. If they have stabilized, we need to continue to check in on them regularly, showing them that we genuinely care about their well-being. Persistent support and follow-up are crucial during the person’s recovery process. The person will likely be embarrassed or feel like they are putting us out, and may not reach out to us on their own after the crisis has settled a bit.
Recognizing the signs of suicidal concerns requires observation and empathy. By paying attention to changes in behavior, mood, and communication, we can better identify someone who may be at risk. And then we can offer them the support that they desperately need. Early intervention and professional assistance can make a significant difference in saving a person’s life. Reach out, listen, and be the compassionate advocate that could potentially make a life-saving impact.
But remember – sometimes, all of our efforts and love are just not enough. People we know will still die by suicide. We can do everything right, and it might still not have the necessary impact on how the person is feeling/thinking. That does not mean we failed. It just means there were other factors, beyond our control, that also influenced that person’s decision.
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