Supporting someone who is suicidal can seem like a daunting task, just know that you don’t always have to know exactly what to say or do. Often being present with someone is enough to keep them distracted and safe, and being aware of warning signs of when they are high risk can help ensure they get the support they need during a crisis.
The most important thing is to be there for them and listen without judgment. Validate that their pain is real, and remind them that you are there for them. Ask them what they need, and what would be most helpful for them. If you feel additional support is needed, don’t hesitate to encourage them to seek professional help—and offer to help them do it.
Supporting Someone Who is Suicidal
So, what are the things you can do to support someone who is suicidal or suffering from mental health challenges and may be considering suicide?
1 Know the signs.
Admitting to someone that you’re struggling is a challenging thing for many people, but sharing that you’re thinking of suicide is often even harder. Many people hold back admitting their thoughts of suicide out of fear of how people will react. So, knowing the signs can help you to provide the appropriate support. Most of the signs are around hopelessness. Some of these signs include a preoccupation with death, getting their affairs in order, saying goodbye and withdrawing from others. We talk about this in more depth in another article (insert link).
2 Listen attentively and without judgement.
If someone does come to you with their thoughts of suicide, try to remain calm and listen to them attentively and without judgment. Focus on just being with the individual and allowing them an opportunity to express their emotions without interrupting or giving advice.
3 Start the conversation.
Suicide is incredibly challenging to talk about or even raise – so if you are concerned, you can be helpful by asking your loved one gently but directly if they’re suicidal. This lets them know that it’s okay to talk about it with you and creates a space where they can express their thoughts. Be direct and ask if the person is considering suicide rather than hinting at it or implying it.
4 Evaluate their risk.
Once someone has shared their thoughts of suicide, it is important to determine their level of immediate risk; are they just thinking that death may be a nice option if it somehow just happened (passive suicidal ideation) or are they actively wanting to do something to hurt themselves (active suicidal ideation)? There are a few questions you can ask to determine their level of risk:
- Determine whether or not they have a plan as well as how detailed that plan is. Do they know by what means they would attempt to kill themselves? Do they have a date set?
- Determine how lethal their method is and whether or not the supplies are immediately available to them. For example; if they’re planning to use pills are the ones they have chosen enough to kill them and do they currently have them at their house (with help determining how lethal a pill dose is, call the nurses helpline at 8-1-1).
- Ask if they intend to carry out their plan.
- Determine whether or not they have attempted suicide or self-harmed in the past or if they have recently started preparing for suicide. Preparations could include getting the materials they need to kill themselves as well as engaging in activities like giving away possessions or written a suicide note.
- Determine what other supports they have in their life. Do they have anyone to talk to about this besides you? Are they seeing a counsellor? Are they aware of the availability of crisis lines?
5 How to take action.
- If they are in immediate danger, take them to an emergency room or call 9-1-1, or call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) which is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week anywhere in BC.
- If they are not in immediate danger:
- Give them the space to talk about how they are feeling without judgment.
- Gently challenge their reasons for wanting to die (e.g., “I know it may feel that way, but I promise you that your family will not be better off without you”).
- Offer to help them make a safety plan. We have discussed how to do this in detail in another article (insert link).
- Talk about long term plans like connecting them with a counsellor or helping them to make an appointment with one they already have or getting them familiar with distress centre services.
- Check-in with them regularly over the next few days/weeks so they know that someone cares about them and provides a channel for them to reach out when they are struggling.
Know that there is only so much you can do to support someone and it can feel defeating if you have done everything you can but the person you care about is still struggling. Do everything you can, but know you can’t do everything. Make sure that you, as a support system/caregiver, are also making time to take care of yourself. Giving to others can be emotionally draining and you are only able to continue to help if you take care of yourself first. Note: if you are struggling to provide support and don’t know what to do at any point, you can also call the suicide crisis line for information, resources and suggestions that can help you to support your loved one.
Check out Dr. Joti Samra’s Coping with Suicidal Thoughts for more resources, information, support, and practical steps to help cope with suicidality. If you or someone you love is at immediate risk reach out to 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) for 24-hour support.