How can I Help a Suicidal Friend or Family Member?

by Harley Therapy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Many of us can’t imagine what it must feel like to want to take your own life. So despite our best intentions, when someone we love suggests they are considering suicide, we can actually say or do things that make the situation worse.

What are the ten things you can do and say that will actually help someone if they are feeling suicidal?

1. Keep your language non-judgemental and label free.

It’s important to realise that someone is not ‘crazy’, ‘weird’, or ‘sick’ to talk about suicidal thoughts. They are just suffering emotional pain and going through a hard time. If anything, they are courageous to have shared their struggle with you.

2. Make it about them, not you.

Resist any temptation to share stories about ‘what I do when I feel sad’. And don't say that you understand if you don’t.

Instead, just be a good listener. Allow silence for the other person to talk. Ask questions if you don’t understand.

Be careful you don’t blame yourself or say things like ‘I feel responsible’. That is a backhanded way of again making it about yourself.

3. Ensure the person is in a safe space.

If the person has called you or texted you, make sure they are somewhere safe.

If you can, and if they agree, go meet them. They might protest at first (feeling suicidal brings up a lot of shame) but make it as clear as possible that you really do want to spend time with them.

If you are already with them, find a quiet place to talk where you won’t be interrupted.

4. Make it clear how much you are there for them.

Suicidal thoughts make someone feel alone, ashamed, and alienated. Constantly emphasise how happy you are to help, and how available you are.

If this is not true, if you are not really able to help or be there for the other person because you are under enormous stress yourself? Or you simply don’t feel up to task? Then be honest about it. Apologise, and do your best to help the person reach the right help.

5. Do not betray his or her confidence.

If you can’t be there for the person and need to find them other help, this does not mean calling other people without their permission (unless, of course, you suspect they are really going to hurt themselves or someone else).

Nor does it mean telling everyone they are having suicidal thoughts. The last thing the other person needs is to feel betrayed.

What it does mean is encouraging him or her to talk to another friend or family member who is more available, or providing a list of help lines and counsellors. Then check in to see that he or she has found other help.

6. Ditch the ‘good advice’ and positivity.

A person with suicidal thoughts really doesn't need or want platitudes or advice. This is a surefire way to make someone feel a nuisance, or unheard. Again, just listen.

7. Drop the solutions, too.

It can be tempting to try to find a solution to the other person's problems. Unless that solution is to pay for some counselling for him or her, this can backfire. First, it will leave the person feeling not listened to. Second, it can make the person feel more of a failure.

It’s fine to offer to sit down and find a solution with them when they are feeling better. For now what they need is compassion and comfort.

8. Do try to find the trigger.

If you think you know what is upsetting them, and if sharing it might be a release for him or her, ask good questions. Focus on ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions, as ‘why' questions tend to lead to overthinking and self-judgment.

9. Ask first when it comes to physical contact.

Don’t assume the person wants a hug. Ask first. The same goes for holding their hand or putting an arm around them. Remember that their comfort is the priority, not your need to 'do the right thing', or do what you would want yourself if roles were reversed.

10. Call for help if needed.

Calling emergency services when the person is only sharing their thoughts can leave him or her feeling judged and misunderstood. At the same time, if the person really is going to carry out their thoughts and you don’t call for help, the consequences can be grave.

Look for information that shows if the person does or doesn’t have an exact plan for their suicide, and the means to make it a reality.

  • Are they really intending to kill themselves, or just talking about it?
  • Do they have an exact plan for how to do it?
  • Do they have the things they need to carry out the plan?
  • Have they chosen a time to do so?

*If they have a clear plan and the means to carry it out, then even if they say they will not do it, they are high risk. Calling emergency services is advisible.

Is your friend or loved one happy to talk to a therapist? With his or her consent you can book them a session and they can be receiving help as soon as tomorrow. Go to our booking page now to see who is available.

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