Helping Someone Who is Suicidal

Suicide: What you should and should not do to help 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.

Suggestions for dealing with someone who is very depressed and for whom you are concerned may be suicidal are:

  • DO: Approach the person; often a depressed person is not even aware of the degree of his/her depression. Tell the person what you've noticed about his/her behavior and that you are concerned about how down s/he seems to be. Ask the person what you might do to help. Make firm suggestions as to what s/he might do to help self including suggesting seeking professional services. Depression decreases one's ability to come up with alternatives, and you may be able to help the person realize people care and to help find alternatives for help.
  • 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 the depressed person to meals, for walks, etc. Getting a depressed person back into routine activities can be helpful, although it is not a cure.
  • DO: Take seriously every suicidal threat or comment. 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. Dealing with a depressed or suicidal person 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.
  • 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 suicidal person 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 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.