If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you know someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts. You may be aware of this, or it may come as a complete shock to you. By now, it should be clear that there is not a ‘type’ of person that struggles with suicidality. Mental illness and mental ill-health can affect anyone. It could be someone we suspect or it could be the happiest person we know.
While it can be difficult for everyone involved, there are many things you can do to support someone who is suicidal, we will run through these in this article.
Warning signs that someone may be suicidal
First, let us run through the warning signs of suicide. If we don’t pick it up, we may never have an opportunity to intervene and have the conversation.
- Isolation – Someone who was once social may become withdrawn and stop attending outings with family and friends. Even our introverts can withdraw by reducing their method of normal communication (e.g. not responding to texts). Additionally, they may suddenly stop doing activities they previously found enjoyable.
- Feelings of helplessness – while we can’t tell how someone is feeling, we can pick up a lot from language. Phrases such as ‘what’s the point’ and ‘nothing will change’ can indicate someone is feeling helplessness
- Talking about it – yes, sometimes people do drop obvious hints they are thinking of suicide. If someone is making a lot of jokes about dying, suicide or killing themselves, this is an opening for you to ask the question (more on this below)
- Risky behaviour – someone who is suicidal may engage in life-threatening behaviour and have a lack of regard for their life or future. Substance use, reckless driving or even making large decisions that don’t take the future into consideration can all be warning signs that the person is not planning on being around much longer
- Giving away items – a well-known sign, but an important one. If someone is getting their affairs in order, giving items away or sorting out emergency care for animals or children, this can be cause for concern
- Happiness – This one may surprise you. As humans, we do not get unwell quickly, we also do not get better quickly. If you know someone has been struggling and they are suddenly happy and carefree – this can be an indication that a decision to end their life has been made and they are at peace
If you believe someone you know may be considering suicide, it is critical that you ask them directly.
Myths about suicide
Starting conversations with someone about suicide can be hard, especially if you’re worried about them and don’t know what to say. Let us break down some common myths that act as barriers for people talking about suicide
- If you ask about suicide, you may put the idea in their head.
When you ask someone if they are thinking about suicide, you will get one of two answers: ‘yes’ or a mortally offended ‘no way!’. Although we hope for the latter, if the answer is yes, we have not given the person the idea, we are giving them a space to talk about something they have previously felt alone in. People cannot be given the idea of suicide, everyone is already aware that it exists. Giving someone a space to talk about their struggle and feelings of suicide is what eases that isolation
- Suicide is attention seeking
We need to take all reports of suicidality seriously because we simply cannot afford not to. Even if a person does not have a plan yet, this can change in an instant. If someone is disclosing feeling suicidal, they are communicating the depth of pain they are in. Listen and believe that, regardless of your judgement of it. Mentally healthy people do not disclose suicidality.
- Suicide is selfish
More often than not, suicide is done from a place of selflessness, not selfishness. When feeling suicidal, it is common to wholeheartedly believe your family and loved ones will be better off without you, that the person suffering is a burden and they should release everyone from their bind. To the suicidal person, they are doing the most selfless thing they can think of. While suicide hurts those that are left behind, it rarely comes from selfish reasons.
How to talk to someone about suicide
Before we start this section, I want to note that this is only an overview. If you want to know the ins and outs and get more comfortable with conversations of suicide, I strongly recommend doing a Mental Health First Aid Course where we discuss how to have this conversation in depth.
If you think someone may be considering suicide, simply ask them. Do not use ambiguous language and ask something like ‘are you thinking of doing something silly’. There must be no judgement or room for misunderstanding between the two parties. “Are you thinking of suicide” or “Are you thinking of killing yourself” are perfect examples of how we want to ask.
If someone says yes, all you have to do is listen. Thank the person for sharing that with you and ask them what has been happening for them. Do not try to solve, fix or guilt the person into changing their mind. You are there to listen, not to treat. You could even suggest doing something together as an activity – such as going for a walk or enjoying a coffee at a cafe – which could help ease any tension and make it easier for both of you to open up.
What to say (and what not to say) to someone who is suicidal
Creating a safe space for someone who is suicidal is the best thing you can do to help. When talking to someone, make sure you approach with empathy and use caution when discussing their feelings. Avoid being judgmental or minimizing the person’s pain. Ask open questions such as “What’s been happening?” and “How can I support you?”
Let the person know that you take their feelings seriously rather than responding with something such as “but you have so much to live for” or “things will get better”. Try to talk about helping the person rather than saying things like “it’s all in your head” which can invalidate their experience and make them feel unheard. Be direct about your concerns for safety rather than ignoring it or glossing over it. Most importantly, don’t forget to listen, as feeling heard is often very important for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings. Again, your whole job is to listen and not fix.
Someone has told me they are suicidal, what now?
Okay so the listening is done, now what? Do not feel you need to take on the role of sole supporter for someone who is suicidal. Even therapists have professional support, so it is unrealistic is expect yourself to take that on yourself. Help the person book in to talk to a professional, a trusted GP or Doctor is usually the first port of call. If they already have a therapist or psychologist, they can be a safe space to disclose as well. You can help by making the appointment, offering to drive the person or even going with them. Disclosing you have been feeling suicidal can be incredibly hard to say out loud, so support to do this is key.
How to take care of yourself if you’re supporting someone who is suicidal
Taking care of your own mental health is essential if you’re supporting someone who is suicidal. It’s important to reach out for extra help and support when needed, whether it be from other family members or mental health professionals. Exercise can also be a great way to manage stress, as physical activity has been proven to release endorphins which trigger positive mood shifts. Eating healthy and participating in activities that bring joy into your life are both simple yet effective methods of giving yourself a mood boost. Above all else, make sure you have time for relaxation and self-care. Releasing our worries temporarily can stop the cycle of negative thought patterns before they become too deep-rooted. Taking care of yourself doesn’t need to be complicated—even a simple act like meditating or listening to music can go far in preserving your sense of well-being during difficult times.
It is also important to remember to check in with yourself before having these conversations. Are you in an okay place to hold space for the other person, to hear what they have to say and respond with empathy and compassion? If you have had a rough day, maybe it is not the time for the conversation if it can wait. Boundaries and self-care are extremely important when it comes to caring and supporting others, you cannot pour from an empty cup.
If you are a carer for someone, please head over to our app and consider investing in your own mental wellness.