It’s sad and shocking to think about, but several million people consider suicide each day.
And according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to one million then die each year by taking their own life.
Many of us can’t imagine the pain someone would have to endure to commit suicide. We feel helpless at the very thought of someone we know and love wanting to end their life, or scared to bring up the subject with them.
But you don’t have to be a professional counsellor or therapist to know and understand the signs of suicide, and learning the signs of suicidal thoughts and talking openly about them can actually save lives.
What sort of person thinks about suicide?
It’s actually normal to at some point in your life give thought to the day your life will end, or mull over what suicide is like. For most people it’s thankfully just a flashing thought, a ‘what if’ moment.
But it’s important to remember that such thoughts can happen to anyone. Someone who is considering suicide is not ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’, they are just suffering and in emotional pain.
For others, suicidal thoughts are not related to any particular event but stem from a general sense of hopelessness and despair that can be the effect of depression or a personality disorder . Such thoughts can quickly become overwhelming or obsessive.
Most people considering suicide don’t actually want to die, they just want an end to the painthey feel, and can’t see other options. A professional can help them see those better options, as well as help them understand why their mind is stuck in such a negative pattern and how they can start to feel better about themselves and their lives.
What are the signs that someone is considering committing suicide?
Here are some things you can keep an eye out for if you worry a friend or loved one might be having suicidal thoughts.
1.They increasingly speak negatively about their own life.
This is often an attempt to let you know they are not doing well. Words like ‘desperate’, ‘fearful’, ‘no point’, and ‘no future’ fill their language.
2.They might even joke about, or openly talk about, what it would be like to die or kill yourself.
This sudden interest in death might carry over into doing internet searches on suicide, or looking into how to buy things to aid with suicide like weapons or pills.
3. They often show signs of deep depression.
This can include no longer caring about what used to matter to them, stepping away from activities they once loved, avoiding any social situations, and beginning to isolate themselves (for more information on signs of depression see our guide to depression).
4. They joke about hopelessness.
If your friend or loved one jokes that they have no options, that there is nothing left for them in life, that they find life unbearable or they can’t see any future at all, it’s a sign to be concerned.
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 on taking their life. Another sign might be suddenly making a will.
6. They 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.
Important things to keep in mind if someone tells you they are considering suicide
If you’re with a person who is expressing the desire to hurt themselves, the first helpful step is to make it clear you truly want to support them and really care.
2) Try to find a quiet 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. Try and steer away from other people so the person can feel at ease to share openly.
3) If you’re not in the same space as the person, find out where they are.
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.
4) Consider an non-invasive form of physical contact.
Sit as close to them as they allow. Ask them if you can put an arm around their shoulder, or hold their hands. If they shrug you off, accept it, but let them know you are happy to be there for them in whatever way they feel comfortable with.
5) Keep the focus on them.
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’re going through, and all the problems that 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.
6) 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).
7) Allow silence.
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.
9) Hold back on your good advice or ‘positivity’.
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 more likely to cause only guilt and frustration.
As for sweeping and general statements like ‘look on the bright side’, ‘you have so much to live for’, ‘you can’t do that to your family’, these sorts of statements aren’t helpful. They minimise someone’s feelings and experience.
10) Try to resist coming up with a solution to their problems.
In fact, in that moment, the problems may not have a solution. 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. That is for another time.
11) 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.
12) Drop any and all labels.
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.
If it’s too much for you to deal with, be honest with them you are feeling overwhelmed and help them find other support immediately, such as another friend or family member or a hotline.
Should you call for help?
The decisions you make when someone shares with you that they are having suicidal thoughts are clearly important so be careful about making them. It can be a fine line of wanting to make them feel safe and like they can trust you, and wanting to get them help if needed.
Call emergency services if you feel certain the person is going to try and commit suicide. While such a decision can have strong ramifications, it can also save a 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. For example:
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 and making sure your friend gets not only your support right now but also professional support as soon as possible may help them. 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 stablised from their suicidal moment
When the episode is over and you’re with your friend, try and open the conversation again to how they might find support. The deeper and wider their support system, the less likely it is someone will try to take their life, and more likely someone’s life will be saved. You might find our guide to telling someone they need therapy helpful.
Have we missed something important? Do you have advice or a story you’d like to share about helping loved ones who might be suicidal? Use the comment box below to start the conversation.