Maybe you got a call, or a text: your friend is in the hospital because of a failed suicide attempt. You’re shocked and that rush of adrenaline is making your head spin. You might ask yourself, “what could I have done to prevent this?”
You’re not alone. I hear this all. the. time. Someone tells me of someone in their family or group of friends who has attempted suicide and they say something like, “I should have invited them over more” or “I feel bad that I never called”. The thing is, suicide is complicated and involves so many more factors than whether or not you invited them to lunch that one time. Others will feel defensive and say it was “just a cry for help” but deep down they are still feeling that same amount of shame and urgency to do something.
Here’s the thing: there is something you can do if your friend attempted suicide. You can reach out. They may feel ready, or not, to discuss the incident with you. You don’t need to push it, and you DON’T need to be their therapist. You can just show up and be available to them emotionally, physically, mentally, whatever it seems that they need.
If they are still in the hospital, find out if they are receptive to visitors. If they aren’t, respect that. If they are, call their room and see if they would be okay with you stopping by. They may only be allowing certain people, in which case respect their space.
If they’re recovering at home, approach like you would if they were in the hospital. Check first to see if they are willing to see people. If not, then respect their space, but feel free to continue the conversation via phone or text and assess the situation.
How to assess what you can or should do for a friend who attempted suicide:
Ask them if they have more plans to attempt again. Yes, they may lie to you, but asking isn’t going to trigger a desire to attempt again. If they say they do, and they seem at risk for a potential attempt in the very near future, then call your local crisis hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.
If you ask them if they have more plans and they say no, then ask them if they have plans to get help. If they have no plans to, simply say that you want to see them get better and that you’d be willing to help them make an appointment with a counselor. It also doesn’t hurt to offer to attend the first session of counseling with them.
Remind them that they matter to you and others. Tell them what they mean to you and what you are willing to do to help them. You aren’t ultimately responsible for their choices, but offer to help in ways that make sense for you, like making them dinner, or helping them around the house until they get back on their feet.
Check up on them regularly. Just because they said they don’t have plans to attempt again doesn’t mean they won’t make plans later. Ask them if they’ve been thinking about it since the incident or if they are feeling better. Don’t feel like you have to do this daily, just use some intuition as a friend to see how they are doing with it.
Overreact, this should be obvious. They are most likely feeling vulnerable, and many people don’t like the attention that comes after an attempt. After all, many people didn’t consider the idea that they would even have to have a conversation about this incident.
Avoid having a conversation about it if they want to talk about it. They may not even care if you say anything back. In fact, you can ask them if they want you to respond or just listen for now. Respect what they say, but if you aren’t sure how to respond you can be open about that as well.
Treat them like a project. You’re not their “life coach” (I mean, unless of course, you ARE, but…) and you don’t have to be their therapist or counselor (leave it to the professionals!) just be there and be their friend. Do friend things. Ask them to join in with you doing friend things.
Offer to take them to do self-destructive things. Don’t ask them if they want to go get wasted to get their mind off things, or to go for a shopping spree. These are bad habits to get into and can be damaging to their recovery.
Analyze their situation. Just let it be a thing that happened and let them know that you are happy they are still with us.
Assume that their life is in your hands. If you are a spouse or a parent of someone who has attempted, this is especially difficult as you do have added responsibilities to that person. However, when you are a friend or a neighbor, taking on their burden for them oversteps your boundaries and likely won’t help.
I get it, it’s tricky. Even if you’ve read through this article 1,000 times you might still get nervous and want to just avoid seeing them. However, you’ll get better at approaching others and you might be surprised at how you appropriately react to someone’s attempt will help you create a solid bond with them. Try your best to connect with them, whatever way seems most comfortable.
If you feel like you may be in crisis or you are with someone who is in crisis, please call:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline