Helping Someone Who is Suicidal
Our culture places great emphasis on privacy and an individual's right to make his/her own decisions. Thus, it often takes a great deal of courage to reach out to someone who is depressed. In addition, suicide is a taboo topic in our society and one which many of us are frightened of. It may be difficult to decide how to intervene or help someone who is very depressed. However, it is important to reach out when someone you know is depressed; a firm and sensitive approach may be the most caring act on your part.
Recognizing Warning Signs
Most individuals display signs that they are thinking about suicide. Being able to recognize these signs can help save a life.
- Talking about suicide. Sometimes this isn’t always a direct statement, such as “I am going to kill myself.” It can look like “I wish I were never born” or “I wish I didn’t have to wake up tomorrow.”
- Recent purchase of lethal means. If a friend recently purchased a weapon such as a gun, and they normally are anti guns, this could be a warning sign. Or if you see a friend hoarding medication.
- Giving away items that are important or making arrangements for important items. For instance “If anything ever happened to me will you take care of my cat.”
- Saying goodbye- If someone says goodbye to you as if it is the last time they will see you, this can be a warning sign.
- Struggling with mental health concerns such as depression.
- Increased substance use.
- Sudden display of happiness or feeling of calm when this has not been the normal experience for them recently (for example a person struggling with depression for several months suddenly feels happy without any intervention).
- Withdrawing, isolating, and talking of being a burden to others can be a warning sign.
What you can do:
- DO: Approach the person.
- DO: Tell the person what you've noticed about his/her behavior and that you are concerned about how down s/he seems to be.
- DO: Ask the person what you might be able to do to help. Make firm suggestions as to what s/he might do to help self including suggesting seeking professional services.
- DO: Listen and ask concerned questions. Allow the person to talk and be a caring ear. Resist the temptation "to make it all better" because you can't.
- DO: Offer to accompany your friend/loved one to meals, for walks, etc. Aiding the individual back into routine activities can be helpful, although it is not a cure.
- DO: Take seriously every threat or comment about suicide. While it is true that more people talk about suicide than do it, most who do it have talked about it beforehand.
- DO: Seek help for yourself and/or the other person. You and your friend can receive free consultation or counseling from Counseling and Psychological Services, local hospitals or crisis centers. Encourage the person to get help: "I'm really concerned about you, but I think we need a professional to help us deal with how bad you are feeling." Offer to go with the person, or, if the individual refuses to seek counseling, consult a professional yourself to explore other ideas.
- DO: Be sensitive to your own needs and limits. Supporting a friend suffering from depression or thoughts of suicide can be difficult and draining; don't exhaust yourself by trying to take responsibility for the person and to solve his/her problem by yourself. Recognize your own emotional reactions and take care of yourself.
What to Avoid:
- DON'T: Offer false reassurances or try to "cheer someone up;" it usually results in the other person feeling misunderstood or not cared about or accepted.
- DON'T: Get into intellectual arguments with a person experiencing thoughts of suicide, including about whether s/he should live or die or whether suicide is moral or not. Try instead to listen patiently to his/her feelings and respond to these.
- DON’T: Be tell a person you will keep this secret for them. Let them know that they are too important to keep this a secret.
- DON'T: Be afraid to ask the person whether s/he is thinking about suicide. This question won't put the idea into his/her mind; instead, it usually lets the other person know that his/her feelings are being taken seriously and are understood by someone.
- DON'T: Dismiss or challenge the suicidal remark (don't try to call his/her bluff). Comments such as "Oh, you'd never really do it", "You're not the type to kill yourself", or "If you really meant it, you wouldn't be talking about it" are insensitive and dangerous. Most people are ambivalent about suicide, and such comments may result in the individual impulsively acting out the side that wants to die.