What If My Friend Is Suicidal?
The signs of a suicidal friend, and the conversation that leads you to this point, is a difficult journey to take. If your friend has confided in you that they have considered suicide, this is actually a good step in the right direction. It means that they trust you enough with that information that they can say it out loud to you. In fact, for a suicidal person, that can be the hardest part- saying it out loud.
But, what then?
When your friend is suicidal…
Your reaction makes a big difference. If you’re feeling scared or sad, you might find yourself resorting to anger or frustration to hide that sadness. If you find yourself feeling this way, keep it on the subject at hand- i.e. the fact that they feel suicidal.
Assess the seriousness of the thoughts
Ask them if they’ve made a plan. If they do have a detailed one, with what means they intend to do it, and when or where, be sure to see if this is really possible and then remove any weapons in their vicinity if necessary. Avoid judgmental comments or facial expressions. Remain calm and react neutrally throughout the process.
It’s also important to never promise to keep their suicidal thoughts a secret. Tell them that this is because you care too much about them to do that. They may not want a specific person to know, and that is up to your discretion, but if the subject comes up, let them know that if you feel like the situation merits it, you may need to call their doctor or another professional to help them if seems serious enough.
If they are able to tell you specific answers to these questions, please contact someone who can help them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 can be a great resource for help with this type of situation, or you can also contact their doctor or psychiatrist if they have one. If the person is someone under the age of 18, tell their parents or a school counselor, whichever seems the most accessible. If their plan is imminent, within the next 24 hours or so, contact 911 and tell them this is a mental health issue. Try not to leave them alone (physically, or on the phone) until they are able to get help.
Provided that the situation doesn’t seem dangerous or imminent, then consider these other options.
Listen to understand
They might not want to talk much about it, but if they do, listen. While you listen, try not to think so much about how you want to respond, but instead think about what they are telling you. Their suicidal thoughts don’t have anything to do with you, so avoid turning the situation on you. Avoid things like, “I feel so bad, like this is my fault”. Instead try to say things like, “It seems like things have been so hard for you, how can I help?”
Be careful with your words
Your words can make a difference in how safe they feel with you. Telling them how to feel like, “this will pass” or “stay optimistic” tells them that you aren’t really interested in their experience and doesn’t provide any viable help. Tell them you support them and want to be a resource for them. Ask how you can help and reflecting their experience can be important ways to ease their pain. Say, “As your friend, I care about you. What can I do to help?”
Check up on them
When your friend is suicidal, one and done isn’t going to cut it. Once you’ve been told, it’s important to keep connected with them on a regular basis. Put a reminder in your phone if you have to, but make sure you call, text, or meet up with them as often as you think is necessary. This connection is the number one protective factor for those who are suicidal.
Okay, it might feel natural to start digging in and looking for things in their life that seem harmful to their mental health, but this is often the last thing a suicidal friend wants you to do. Save psychoanalysis for their counselor.
Stay with the positive
Validate their feelings of hopelessness first- “You feel like everything is falling apart”- but then it’s okay to ask them what is going well for them. “What are some things you feel excited about?” is a good start. Or bringing up something that they’ve recently accomplished might be a good pick-me-up. When you explore this and you hit a dead-end, make a plan for a fun activity to do with them that might be a good thing for them to look forward to.
It also doesn’t hurt to help out by saying that you are willing to chat if they ever need it, but that if you aren’t available there are other resources available. Ask them if they would be willing to see a doctor or counselor, and if they are, offer to help them find someone. Ask them if they have another close friend or relative they can be with. Give them the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Crisis Text Line if they are alone and can’t access a trusted friend.
There are a number of ways that you can be a friend to someone who is suicidal. If you truly care about this issue, then please share this information with someone else and commit to teach others what to do. We believe that suicide prevention should be common knowledge and practice, just like CPR or other First Aid knowledge.
If you are feeling suicidal, or you are in a situation with a suicidal friend and aren’t sure what to do, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255