If a friend or loved one opens up to you about having suicidal thoughts, it can be a terrifying and upsetting moment. You might not know the best way to react or the right thing to say. It might feel like a lot of pressure, and you may wonder why they decided to talk to you.
It’s important to know that you don’t have to be a professional to check in with your friend or to be there for them in a difficult moment. If they choose you to open up to, they trust you with the intimate workings of their mind. It also means that they are reaching out for help and see you as a source of support.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States, with 45,979 deaths by suicide in 2020 alone. Many more people have suicidal thoughts but don’t act on them. If your loved one is thinking about suicide, they aren’t alone. You can take action to help them move through this difficult time.
Your first task is to remain calm. Panicking or getting upset will only hurt your loved one and may indicate that they were wrong to seek help.
It may seem like a daunting responsibility to hear them out, but you don’t have to be a therapist or a medical professional to give your friend a listening ear. You can always seek help from someone else when the conversation is over.
Suicide is heavily stigmatized, as is mental illness. Many of us have internalized this stigma or have our own opinions about suicide.
Do your best to put aside your preconceived notions when speaking with your loved one. Show that you are taking them seriously and listening to what they say. It may have been difficult for your loved one to voice how they’re feeling, so validate them by taking them seriously.
Your body language is just as important as your words when talking to your loved one about suicide. Show them you are listening and engaged by maintaining eye contact with them.
Use non-verbal cues such as touch if you know they’d be comfortable with that or by nodding and affirming them as they speak.
While listening is your number one job in the conversation, it’s wise to ask a few gentle questions when appropriate. Asking questions can help you evaluate just how dire your loved one’s situation is and give you a better idea of what action steps you need to take.
Open-ended questions that don’t request a yes or no answer are always a good idea since it allows your loved one to say whatever is on their mind.
Some questions you might want to ask include:
Know that it’s okay to be direct. You don’t have to dance around the topic; your loved one wants to talk to you. You won’t push them closer to suicide if you ask these questions. In fact, it may actually help them to talk about it openly.
Besides just asking questions, you should ensure your loved one knows you’re there for them and that they won’t scare you away by talking about suicide.
Say things like “Thank you for telling me, and I’m glad you’re telling me how you feel,” so they feel confident in their decision. Reassure them that they’re not the only person who’s ever felt this way, that it’s normal, and that it doesn’t have to last forever.
You can’t magically solve their problems, but you can show solidarity and let them know you will help them find solutions if that’s what they want–or just be there as a listening ear.
While it’s good to speak plainly and let your loved one be honest, some things are better left unsaid or worded carefully. For instance:
Try to put yourself in their position and imagine what you would want to hear if you were feeling the same way. When in doubt, listen and tell them you hear them.
Loved ones experiencing suicidal ideation may not always tell you what they’re thinking or feeling. If you are concerned about someone you know, there are a few red flags you can watch for.
Someone who’s contemplating suicide might:
If you notice a friend or loved one exhibiting these signs, it may be time to approach them for a compassionate conversation.
While being there for your loved one is crucial, you aren’t a mental health professional, and you can’t act as one. Someone experiencing suicidal ideation needs treatment, likely for an underlying cause such as anxiety or depression.
Gently encourage your loved one to seek treatment in the form of mental health counseling or medication. Even just scheduling an appointment with a general practitioner is a great starting place.
If your loved one isn’t ready to seek professional help, that’s okay. Let them know you’re there to talk to them and that you’ll help them find the right provider if they need that support.
Remind them that there are many ways to access support, including online options.
It’s vital to understand if your loved one is in imminent danger. If they have a plan for carrying out their suicide, encourage them to contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you fear for their safety, don’t leave them alone. Contact a friend or family member or call 911.
You’re not responsible for preventing someone from taking their own life, but your intervention can make a difference. If you’re worried for your loved one, don’t hesitate to take action to get them the help they need.