What to Do if You Believe Your Loved One Has Suicidal Thoughts
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S., especially for young people. Supportive family and friends can make a big difference in preventing these deaths. Reaching out and talking to someone about the fact that they might be suicidal is difficult but helpful. Contrary to what many believe, talking about suicide doesn’t lead someone to go through with it. Talking about it and allowing someone to open up in a safe environment only helps.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death in 2020 for people between the ages of 10 and 64. It was the second leading cause for children 10 to 14 and adults between 25 and 34.
Millions of people think seriously about suicide every year in the U.S. It is a leading cause of death that can often be prevented. If someone you care about seems suicidal, you can take steps to support them and contribute to saving their life.
How Do I Know if Someone Is Thinking About Suicide?
The only sure-fire way to know is to ask, but there are warning signs. You might be concerned about your loved one if you observe these behaviors:
- Severe mood swings
- Difficult moods and emotions, like anger, aggression, and depression, followed by sudden relief or a sense of peace
- An increase in substance use and other risky behaviors
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Withdrawing from usual activities
- Significant changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Saying goodbye
- Giving away important items
- Tying up loose plans or making arrangements
You might also hear your loved one say things that concern you. It’s not always obvious to non-professionals when the talk is serious. Some of the red flags to listen for include:
- People, or the world, would be better off without them
- They feel like a burden to friends and family
- Wanting to die or saying it would solve their problems
- Expressing a lot of guilt or shame
Also, consider the risk factors for suicide. Having depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, and other mental illnesses increase the risk. A substance use disorder, serious physical illness or pain, brain injuries, stressful life changes, and having access to a means of committing suicide also put a person at risk for suicide.
If your loved one has risk factors, exhibits troubling behaviors, and says certain things related to dying, they could be having suicidal thoughts.
You don’t have to wait to see these warning signs to talk to a loved one who is struggling. It’s best to start a conversation and ask questions sooner. Doing so could save a life. Here are some questions you can ask to find out what they’re thinking and to lend your support:
- How are you doing right now?
- Are you coping with everything going on in your life?
- Do you sometimes feel like giving up?
- Do you ever think about hurting yourself?
- Have you thought about suicide?
- Have you explicitly thought about how you would do it?
- Have you been thinking about this for a while?
- Have you tried to kill yourself before?
It’s very important to understand that talking about suicide, even methods, don’t push someone into the act. This is a common misconception that prevents many people from asking important questions. In fact, giving your loved one a chance to talk about their difficult thoughts actually reduces the chance that they will act on suicidal thoughts.
Be a Compassionate Listener
Once you have gotten your loved one to start talking, be a good listener. They need someone to listen non-judgmentally. Tell them that you care about them and that you are there for support without judgment.
It can be tough to listen to someone you care about describe such difficult thoughts and not react or judge, but it’s important to remain calm and avoid blaming them or criticizing their feelings.
Compassionate listening also means active listening. Encourage your loved one to open up. Repeat back what they say to you to show that you hear and acknowledge their feelings. Ask them to explain what they’re experiencing. Recognize that you don’t know how they feel but that you care and want to understand.
Tell your loved one that, although it feels terrible right now, this won’t last forever. Help them get through each day, one at a time and with less emphasis on the future, which can be overwhelming for someone in this position.
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Offer Alternatives and Options
Your loved one isn’t thinking rationally, so provide alternatives. They may seem obvious to you, but it’s difficult to consider other options in the depths of despair that coincide with suicidal thoughts. Talk about how alternatives to suicide could help, like contacting a crisis line or text service or talking to a mental health professional.
Connect Them to Resources
If your loved one is receptive to alternatives, help them locate the resources they need. Start with the basics, like a crisis hotline and online sites that help people considering suicide.
Round up other options for more extended treatment, like counselors and therapists, or even a doctor if your loved one doesn’t have a primary care provider. Find treatment centers for depression and other mental illnesses if they decide a stay in residential care might help.
Identifying and Acting on an Emergency
Once you start the conversation, ask questions, and listen to your loved one, it’s important to consider if the situation constitutes an emergency. If they talk about committing suicide and doing it soon, take them at their word. Treat it as an emergency that requires immediate professional help.
First, ask them to wait a little while. Stay with them or find someone who can. Remove anything from the home or area that they could use to take their life. It might seem trivial, but research shows that removing means reduces suicides.
If you don’t know whom to contact to help them or don’t feel confident in the support you can provide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Try to get your loved one on the phone, but if you can’t, listen to the advice they provide for what you can do next.
What Not to Say or Do
What you do and say to your loved one in crisis is essential. Most important is that you do something and offer support and kind words. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to say the wrong thing, especially if you haven’t been in their shoes. Avoid unhelpful advice or statements like these:
- Telling them to cheer up or snap out of it
- Pointing out how good their life actually is in comparison to others
- Telling them they have no right to feel this way
- Providing advice or trying to give them a concrete solution
- Saying you know how they feel if you have never been suicidal
- Getting angry at what they’re putting you through
- Trying to distract them or change the subject
Never belittle someone who is suicidal or trivialize their feelings. They are not trying to be dramatic. They are hurting. This can be hard to understand if you’ve never been in the same situation. Take them seriously and take them at their word.
Unhelpful statements might seem insignificant to you. To someone who is suicidal, these comments can make them feel rejected, unheard, ashamed, and like no one understands them.
When someone you love is hurting, offering help and an ear to listen is so important. Do what you can to support them, but also take care of your own needs. You can and should do something, but keep in mind that, ultimately, you are not responsible for anyone else’s actions. If a loved one’s distress is affecting your mental health, reach out to a professional to talk about it and manage your own wellness.