photo by Pixabay for Pexels
by Andrea M. Darcy
Reaching out is important and even lifesaving. How can we help someone feeling suicidal? Suicide prevention means we:
- educate ourselves about suicide
- learn the signs to look for
- know helpful ways to approach a suicidal friend
- and when it is or isn’t time to go to emergency services
- get our friend proper support and help them with a ‘personal safety plan’.
What sort of person thinks about suicide?
The first step to helping someone feeling suicidal? Educate yourself about suicide and learn the myths about suicide.
It’s important to understand that suicidal thoughts and inclinations can happen to anyone. Someone who is considering suicide is not ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’. They are just overwhelmed by life, and in intense emotional pain that leaves them feeling trapped and with no way forward.
Suicidal thinking or ‘ideation’
Thoughts and ideas about taking your own life are called ‘suicidal ideation’. Again, most of us at some point give thought to the day our life will end. And for some people ideation can be a constant, as a a part of a mood or impulse disorder such as OCD.
Global research by the World Health Organisation suggests that two thirds of those who deal with suicidal ideation never make a single attempt at taking their life.
But that still leaves one third who do, which is a substantial statistic. So what leads one to move from ideation to an actual suicide attempt?
Signs someone is considering taking their own life
There are other symptoms to look for in someone that in combination make ideation more of a serious risk.
1.They are increasingly negative about their life and joke about hopelessness.
Words like ‘desperate’, ‘fearful’, ‘no point’, and ‘no future’ fill their language, even if it’s in the guise of ‘jokes’.
Suicidal tendencies see someone feeling worthless, hopeless, and like there is no future.
2. They show signs of deep depression.
Signs of depression can include:
- no longer caring about what used to matter to them
- stepping away from activities they once loved
- avoiding any social situations and isolating themselves
- constant fatigue and being ‘numbed out‘
- increased substance use
- a rise in impulsive and reckless behaviours.
(For more information on signs of depression see our guide to depression).
Note that suicide always involves intense emotional pain. If your friend or loved one seems unable to shake grief, sadness, or rage, pay attention.
3. They talk about feeling trapped and like there is no way out and forward.
New research shows that this might be one of the more important factors to look for if you want to help someone feeling suicidal.
British research looked at symptoms in those who had already tried to commit suicide in the past. The conclusion was that the most dangerous symptom of all, that most meant that person would again try to kill themselves? Was entrapment, a feeling of having no way out.
4.They have a new or raised interest in death.
Again, some of us are more likely to think and talk about death than others. But if this interest is raised, or new, pay attention. This might look like watching films and documentaries about death and suicide, doing internet searches on suicide, or looking into how to buy things to aid with suicide like weapons or pills.
One of the final stages towards taking one’s life is making a concrete plan. If you discover a friend or loved one has bought what they need to take their life or is arranging to meet someone to help them die, or has planned the day to do it such as taking a day off work, try to get them to help or to emergency services.
5. They start making out of character efforts to get in touch with people, as if they are saying goodbye.
If your friend or loved on is feeling hopeless and showing signs of depression, and starts to suddenly visit family they don’t usually talk to? Or call up people from the past? It could be that they are planning to take their life. Another sign might be suddenly making a will.
6. They uncharacteristically ask you for help.
They might not ask you directly for help with depression, but they might suddenly ask to come over for no apparent reason. Or start asking for help with other things when they never usually require it.
7. After being very low and depressed, they seem oddly calm out of the blue.
This sort of random contentment can sometimes be a sign that someone has made a firm decision to give up on life.
Why do people commit suicide?
Most people considering suicide don’t actually want to die, they just want an end to the pain they feel, and can’t see other options. They might feel they can’t recover since a recent event that left them feeling hopeless and like they’ve let everyone down. This could be something like the death of a loved one, a traumatic accident or injury, a painful divorce, financial distress, yet another romantic rejection, or the loss of one’s job.
Photo by Engin Akyurt for Pexels
And suicide can be highly related to feeling useless. UK statistics, for example, show that amongst women it is the 40-49 age range with the highest risk of suicide. This is an age when men are glorified but women are increasingly sidelined by society. Their children leave home, or involuntarily childless women face the end of fertility hope. Women face menopause and divorce, or suffer a partner leaving for a younger woman, or can feel like they are ageing out of career opportunities.
How can I help someone feeling suicidal?
It’s very important to keep the following in mind when helping someone feeling suicidal, so you do not drive them away or leave them feeling more instead of less vulnerable.
1) Make it clear you are there for them.
The first helpful step is to make it clear you truly want to support them and really care. But it has to be genuine.
If you honestly aren’t up to task, be honest about it and make sure to help them find other support. Call another friend, or be with them when they call a helpline.
2) Try to find a quiet, safe place to be with them.
If you’re in a public place, try to find a quiet spot – a garden, a lone bench, under a tree, or even an almost empty coffee shop. Steer away from other people so the person can feel at ease to share openly.
If you aren’t with them, find out where they are, and ask them if they’re in a safe space. Make sure they are. If you can, offer to come over and visit. This usually means a great deal, as it is a feeling of comfort. Should the person resist any notion of a visit, try and keep them on the phone for as long as possible so that you know they have calmed down.
3) Consider a non-invasive form of physical contact.
Sit as close to them as they allow. If they are the sort who usually welcomes physical contact from you, ask them if you can put an arm around their shoulder. Research shows that physical touch reduces feelings of loneliness and improves wellbeing. Of course do respect their usual personal space, this is not helpful if someone hates physical touch.
4) Keep the focus on them.
This is absolutely not the time to harp on about yourself and your own issues. People thinking of suicide can’t handle their own situation, and listening to someone else’s problems doesn’t help.
While you may feel tempted to tell them all the challenges you’ve overcome and encourage them to feel the same, this is usually not a helpful strategy. And as for blaming yourself, that is just another way to make it about you instead of them.
5) Do your best to be a good listener.
Sometimes listening is the greatest gift we can give someone who is under duress. The problem is that many of us don’t know how to just listen. Don’t interrupt them, and don’t be so busy thinking of the advice you can give when they stop talking you aren’t really listening at all. Be as fully present as you can (learn more in our article on listening).
6) Allow silence and just be present.
The person may sit silently for a while, as often they don’t know what to say, or how to say it. Let them be. Allow them time to find their own words. Don’t give words to them. Don’t think that just because they stopped talking it’s your cue to talk, either. Listening can also involve sharing silence.
7) Hold back on your good advice or ‘positivity’ if you want to help someone feeling suicidal.
There are some people who feel that giving religious or philosophical advice can help. This is unlikely, unless the person is strongly devoted to one spiritual belief system. And even if so, telling someone suicide is a sin or not what God wants is likely to cause only more guilt and frustration.
As for sweeping and general statements like ‘look on the bright side’, ‘you have so much to live for’, ‘or you can’t do that to your family’, these sorts of statements are the opposite of helpful. They minimise someone’s feelings and experience.
8) Try to resist coming up with a solution to their problems.
At this moment, the person needs your love, compassion, and friendship, not your solutions.
At some point when they’re feeling clearer you can sit down and problem solve. Or help them recognise what doesn’t have a solution and needs to be walked away from. That is all for another time.
9) Try to gently find the ‘trigger’.
The person may just want to cry or vent and that may be exactly what they need. But if they can get to the point they admit to what triggered them, they might then feel relief.
Ask simple questions starting with ‘what’ and ‘how’ (why questions can lead to confusion and overthinking at the best of times) and let them talk as much as possible.
10) Drop any and all labels to help someone who is feeling suicidal.
If you find it overwhelming that a friend or relative feels suicidal, that’s fine, but using labels and stigmatising to push them away can only worsen the situation for people who are thinking of suicide. Don’t call them crazy or use any other derogatory language.
Should you call for help?
It can be a very difficult decision to make and needs to be done carefully. It often means they will no longer trust you and will even turn against you, so if you are their only support it can alienate them. But if they really are in danger, it can save the person’s life.
You can determine how real and immediate their intention to kill themselves is, and what level the danger is, by asking careful questions to determine if they have a concrete plan and the means to carry it out. Look for intention, plan, means to do so, and a time chosen. Ask questions like:
- Are you really intending to commit suicide? (intention)
- Do you have a plan for this? (plan)
- And do you even have what you would need to carry it out? (means to do so)
- When were you thinking of doing this exactly? (a time chosen).
If they have a concrete plan and the means to carry out the plan, even if they say they aren’t going to do it, they are at a high risk of actually taking their life and it’s advisable to call emergency services.
If someone’s plan is vague, or they don’t even have a plan, the risk is lower. Make sure your friend gets not only your support right now, but also professional support as soon as possible, either through talking to their GP or privately. There are also many online supports and call lines people can access. If the person feels ready, go over a few of these numbers and/or websites.
What to do once your friend has stabilised
When your friend has moved out of crisis, there are two helpful things to do. One is to help them form what’s called a ‘Personal Safety Plan’.
A Personal Safety Plan is a suggested tool to help keep someone safe in times of distress or when experiencing suicidal thoughts. The six steps of safety planning mean writing out:
- warning signs (how they know they are in danger)
- coping strategies (things they can do alone that take their mind off self-destruction)
- people and settings that can provide healthy distraction
- who they can reach out to for help
- professionals they can contact in crisis (including help lines)
- what they can do to make their environment safe (no weapons in the house, no dangerous medications or large amounts of alcohol, etc).
The Samaritans provide a free template for a safety plan here.
The second thing is to open the conversation to how they might find ongoing support. The deeper and wider their support system, the less likely it is someone will try to take their life. You might find our guide to telling someone they need therapy helpful.
Looking for ongoing support for yourself or a loved one? We connect you with renowned team of London mental health experts, all who have at least ten years of experience. Or use our sister site to find UK-wide registered therapists and online counsellors now.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert with training in person centred counselling and coaching. Suicide prevention is something she is very passionate about, after dealing with suicidal thinking herself and almost losing a family member to suicide. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy