It’s normal to feel a range of emotions from sad and scared to frustrated and confused when your loved one has expressed experiencing suicidal thoughts. You might be asking yourself what can I do to support them? How do I help them through their darkest moments? Here are seven tips on how to help your loved ones.
If you’ve noticed warning signs, don’t be afraid to ask about suicidal thoughts. Asking someone if they are considering suicide does not put the idea into their head. If someone is already thinking about suicide, then bringing it up will not be new to them. In fact, it could instead make them feel less alone having someone provide a nonjudgmental space for them to express their feelings.
If you’re unsure if someone is feeling suicidal it is helpful to be direct. You can repeat their words back to them to make sure you heard them correctly. You can also ask: “Are you thinking about suicide? Or “Are you having thoughts of ending your life?” It’s normal to feel hesitant when asking about suicide, but if the person was already feeling suicidal, then the feelings were there before you even asked. Your dialogue can help pave the path towards seeking help.
Follow up with empathy. Opening up about suicide can feel extremely vulnerable. Validate that it must be hard for them to feel this way. You want to show support, not shame or guilt them. Telling someone that they shouldn’t feel the way they do can only make the person feel more isolated, rejected, or guilty. It is helpful to let them know that you are there for them, you care, and that you are listening.
Assess for risk. Suicidal thoughts do not always mean crisis. However, if the person has a plan in place for how they would kill themselves, then they are at high risk of acting on it. If you’re unsure how to discuss with someone the degree to which they’ve been thinking about suicide, psychiatrists at Columbia University created the Columbia Protocol, a risk-assessment tool, stemming from evidence-based research validating the relevance and effectiveness for its use with assessing suicide for all ages. The Columbia Protocol, walks you through a series of six easy-to-understand questions that provide you with answers as to whether someone is at risk for suicide, the severity and immediacy of that risk, and the level of support that person needs.
If they are in imminent danger don’t let them be alone. The National Suicide Prevention Line provides 5 steps to take when you know someone is in imminent danger. If you can, offer to stay with them, or help them find social support or medical help that can show up immediately. If they have items around to harm themselves with, help work to remove those items from their environment. Creating a safety plan can serve as a preventative measure in the future by helping the person identify reasons for living, coping strategies, warning signs that a crisis might be developing, and a support system to reach out to when they begin to experience suicidal thoughts. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to help you get through a crisis.
If they are not in a crisis, encourage them to seek professional support and see what they are comfortable with. You can help them navigate through the mental health care system. DeQuincy Lezine, psychologist, suicide attempt survivor, and member of the board of directors of the American Association of Suicidology, said in an npr article, “When you’re feeling really down and feeling like you don’t matter as much, you might not want to take the time, or think that it’s worth the time” to go through with counseling and getting help. Following up and offering to help someone connect with mental health resources can prevent a future crisis by finding medications to help or ways to manage mood and suicidal thinking.
Take care of yourself. Implementing your own self-care will allow you to best show up for the ones you love. Identify a strong support system you can reach out to during times of stress. Reach out to those who make you feel loved and safe. Talk with family, friends, or religious community leaders you can rely on. Part of helping to show how there is goodness and hope in life is by being able to partake in the things that make you believe in this too. Engage in things that bring you joy and happiness, that make you laugh and smile, and that make you feel fulfilled. Make sure you’re meeting your needs with enough rest, exercise, healthy eating, and social engagements. It can be helpful to also seek out your own mental health support. Just as you reflect and engage in the resources available to you, remind the person experiencing suicidal thoughts of the resources that exist that are available to help them too.