By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP
Few things are quite as alarming as learning that a loved one has considered suicide. Most people experience a range of emotions when they learn that someone they care about has been in such a dark place. Fear, anxiety, panic, avoidance and even anger may all enter your mind while you try to decide what to say. You may even be unsure if your friend or family member was just making offhand comments about death or suicide or playing it off as a joke. But it’s important not to ignore this situation, and there are some steps you can take to help.
Step One: Take a Deep Breath
Yes, you need to respond to this situation, but you also need to stay calm. If you are able to remain calm and centered, you will be in a better position to help. This is difficult to do, because you might feel panicked, angry or saddened.
Your own emotions are important. However, when it’s time to get immediate help for someone you care about, it’s important to set strong reactions to the side for a moment, and do a little investigating before you panic. Once things have settled down, you may wish to seek supportive counseling for yourself, because this is not an easy situation to deal with.
Step Two: Listen and Ask Questions
It’s important to ask clear and direct questions if you suspect that a friend may be suicidal. This is not a time to avoid difficult questions, and your ability to ask clear questions in a calm manner may make a huge difference in the situation. Asking questions will not push the person into self-destruction. In most cases, helping a person clarify and discuss what they’re feeling will actually improve the situation.1
Begin by stating what you have observed. For instance, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you seem really down lately, and you made a few statements that really worried me. I just want to be sure that I am reading this correctly, because I want to understand what you are going through.” By using statements like “I noticed” and “I wanted to check,” you remove some of the pressure from the conversation. This helps your loved one feel more open, and you may get a more honest answer in return. Assure him that you wish to help, if you can.
- Directly ask the person if he is suicidal. Ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” This is important information, and it’s an opportunity for you to share that you always take suicidal feelings, thoughts and actions seriously. Sometimes, people who joke about suicide are actually masking the fact that they need to talk about some difficult emotions. It’s important to let others know that you take all offhand statements, jokes or figures of speech that make light of suicide very seriously.
- Ask if you can make a phone call to seek help. Offer to give him a ride to the hospital. People dealing with depression are often afraid of becoming a burden. Assure him that you genuinely wish to help in this way.
- Ask if she has a suicide plan, weapons or any means of carrying out the plan. Then remove those items from her home and store them in a safe place, if you can. If she has a suicide plan, she is in greater danger than those without a plan. The presence of a plan is a strong indicator that it’s time to call for help.2
- If anyone is actively suicidal, do not leave that person alone. Call for help.
Step Three: Know Your Limits
Suicidal talk is not a bid for attention. It’s an indication that the person is experiencing extreme distress and may not be thinking about logical solutions. Any suicidal talk must be taken seriously.3
As a friend or family member, you are not expected to fix this situation all by yourself. Help is available. Licensed counselors, therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists have completed years of study and hands-on clinical work for these situations.
Even then, top clinicians often work in a team setting, and rely on input and education from colleagues and employers. Even the best therapists know that they have limits when they are emotionally attached to the person in question, which is why mental health practitioners are not allowed to counsel their own family members or friends. It takes a team to save a life, and help is available.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.4
If you need to speak about treatment options, Rolling Hills Hospital can help. Call our dedicated helpline at 615-807-4059. We can guide you through the process of helping your loved one. We offer evidence-based therapies in a safe, calm and peaceful setting just south of Nashville, Tennessee.
Our dedicated programs that don’t just patch-over the problem — we work with each patient to help heal the causes behind suicidal thoughts. Programs are available for adults and adolescents, and we work with a number of insurance providers to make treatment affordable for all.
1 Mayo Clinic. What to do When Someone is Suicidal. May 28, 2015.
2 National Council for Suicide Prevention. Warning Signs, Risk Factors, and Protective Factors. Accessed January 10, 2018.
3 National Institute of Mental Health. Suicide in America: Frequently asked questions. Accessed January 10, 2018.
4 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Help someone else. Accessed January 10, 2018.