How to support someone who is feeling suicidal
There is still a huge stigma around suicide, that is felt not only by those experiencing suicidal thoughts, but also by the loved ones who have lost someone to suicide. In order to break the stigma we need to talk about suicide.
Statistically, for most people who attempt or commit suicide, there are warning signs. I have included a link at the bottom of this page to explain what these warning signs are. It is a dangerous myth that there are no warning signs for suicide – it is dangerous because believing there are no warning signs often means we are unaware of them.
However, there are many people who lost loved ones to suicide whose lived experience show there were no warning signs before their loved ones committed suicide. We also know that the majority of people who commit suicide are not in contact with mental health services and this is why the biggest takeaway from World Suicide Prevention Day should be to talk about suicide, to end the stigma, to end the judgement and to get comfortable talking about it.
To really support people who are feeling suicidal we have to be able to talk openly about suicide to all of our loved ones, even if you don’t think they are at risk.
If you find it hard to talk about and you aren’t feeling suicidal, imagine how hard it is to talk about for someone who is feeling suicidal. It can be very scary to first start talking to others about suicide – I have been doing it professionally for around seven years and I still get tearful sometimes. It is a hard subject, but even one conversation can help someone. I would encourage everyone to talk to their loved ones about suicide, whether you feel they are at risk or not. Simply saying “September is Suicide Awareness month and I saw the statistic that 1 in 5 people think about suicide. So if you are ever at that point, know that I am hear for you. Have you ever felt like that?” can be a great start.
Many people believe that by reaching out they may make things worse – but through paying attention to the person’s responses you will be able to tell if they are not comfortable, or if they do not want to have that kind of conversation. In these instances, it is best not to force it but to let them know that you are there for them if they do want to open up. In my experience, you would open this conversation if they were either showing risk factors of suicide (resource links at the bottom of the article), or if they were already talking to you about feeling low.
1) Engage them in direct and open talk about suicide.
This can be a huge relief to the person experiencing suicidal thoughts. We need to challenge the idea that talking about suicide is a taboo, and more so, we need to be brave enough to name it. “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” it is a shocking sentence to read for many people. It brings up the fear that you are introducing it to them as a viable option. This is very unlikely to be true. 1 in 5 people think about suicide in their lifetime. 1 in 15 attempt suicide and most people who die from suicide are not in contact with mental health services. It may sound controversial, but when we are able to talk openly about suicide we are able to free people of the isolation they feel about it. Talking about suicide is the best way we know how to prevent suicide. Talking about suicide takes courage, but it can literally make the difference between life and death. When we shy away from direct conversation, we shy away from our ability to really help in that moment.
2) Listen to their feelings and take them seriously.
When we panic, we often want to override the uncomfortable feelings by minimising what we are being told. This is a human response and if you have done it, forgive yourself. Now you know to do it differently. If you make a mistake and it slips out, simply own it “I’m sorry I said that, I was panicking. It’s not easy to hear what you are saying because you mean so much to me, but your feelings are important to me, please keep going”.
3) Avoid talking about how their feelings makes you feel.
Talking about suicide is difficult and it is important you seek support for you around this. It is equally important to seek that support from someone else – not the person who is feeling suicidal. People who are feeling suicidal often do not reach out for support from others as they do not want to burden others, especially when they have been experiencing low moods or poor mental health for a long time as this commonly strains relationships. This is not something to feel guilty about, but not something to avoid either.
Yes, you need comfort, and a space to process the emotions and conversation, but try to process it outside of this moment. When we focus on our own feelings, we often inadvertently guilt or shame the very people we are trying to comfort. Phrases such as “this is difficult for me to hear but I am so glad you are talking to me about it, thank you” can sincerely share your struggle without making them feel accidentally guilty or shamed having the feelings they are experiencing.
4) Help connect them to someone trained in suicide intervention.
If you feel uncomfortable calling a suicide support helpline, imagine how they will feel. I have supported people to call a suicide helpline many times. In my experience many of these workers are excellent, but I have also had a poor experience. In that instance I asked if I could put them on hold and I checked in with the person about whether they were finding the person helpful or not. When they seemed despondent, I suggested we hang up and try another helpline. It is important that the person actually feel listened to and understood by the helpline worker or there is no point them being on the phone as a negative experience can make things worse. It is also important to role model that we can try again and again. One of the things I hear from clients and loved ones who are struggling with seeking support from others is how isolating and frustrating it is when you reach out for support and it is not a good fit. It is very common to struggle to find support that works first time. It can be trying, emotionally exhausting and traumatic to talk to professional after professional and having your support during this can lighten the load. There is support out there. There are so many different types of therapies, projects and programs and so many different types of workers. It might take a while to find someone who is a good fit, but they are out there. There is support out there.
5) Follow up with them, but don’t let depression become your friendship.
Keep in touch with them over the next few days especially, but also don’t be afraid to talk to them about normal things and also difficulties you are having. Rather than worry you are burdening them, if they ask how you are, simply answer honestly with some vulnerability. Human connection is a powerful protective factor when someone is feeling suicidal (and in your own life too), so don’t be afraid to show your own vulnerability.
Remember, if in doubt it is better to talk about it. Talking about suicide is the best way we know how to prevent suicide. Talking about suicide takes courage, and it can literally make the difference between life and death.
*Disclaimer, if the person is in need of urgent help, please call 999.
Information on warning signs and higher risk factors: https://www.nwbh.nhs.uk/suicide-warning-signs
If you work for the local authority, or a charity role, you can contact your local authority to ask if they have any suicide awareness training as part of their suicide prevention strategy. This is where I got trained via SafeTALK and it was incredibly informative.
Prevent Suicide have a lot of great resources and also run virtual training: https://www.prevent-suicide.org.uk/
The Samaritans have a great resource for how to support people who are feeling suicidal: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/if-youre-worried-about-someone-else/how-support-someone-youre-worried-about/what-do-if-you-think-someone-struggling/