One of the most terrifying experiences someone can endure is hearing a loved one talk about ending their life. You may feel afraid to approach the topic or experience uncertainty around which direction to take to help your friend. But speaking directly and openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life. Here are some tips when talking with a suicidal friend or loved one:
Take all mentions of suicide seriously. Almost everyone who attempts or completes suicide has given some clue or warning beforehand to indicate to others that they were in deep despair. When a person tells you that they are thinking about suicide, you are being given a precious opportunity to help before it’s too late. All suicidal talk or behavior should be taken seriously.
Listen. Really listen to your friend. This is a big one. People who are suicidal don’t want advice, answers or solutions. They want a safe place to vent and unload their despair. No matter how shocking or upsetting what they say may sound to you, allow your loved one to talk and talk as much as they need to—without judgment, without interrupting, and without trying to problem-solve. Simply be present with your friend in their pain. Offer a hug or your shoulder to cry on. Let them know you care and that they are important to you.
Offer empathy, not sympathy. Imagine sitting in the middle of a deep, dark, cold tunnel. You peer through the darkness into the distance and can faintly see your family and friends standing at the opposite end of the tunnel, shouting words of hope and encouragement to you. This is sympathy. Now imagine your family and friends actually venturing into the tunnel, crawling through the cold and the darkness to find you and sit beside you. Instead of looking in at you from afar, they’re now right there with you—experiencing the world alongside you and through your perspective. This is empathy.
Ask direct questions. Mentioning the word suicide or talking openly about the topic of suicide will not put ideas into someone’s head or make it any more likely to happen. In fact, the opposite is true. Be sensitive, but ask direct questions suicide, such as:
“Are you thinking about suicide?”
“Have you thought about when you would do it (this evening, tomorrow, a week from now)?”
“Have you thought about how you would do it?”
“Do you have the means or materials available to act out your plan?” If so, “What and where are they?”
“Have you ever attempted suicide before?”
Be supportive, but know your limits. You don’t need any specialized training or education to be a caring and supportive friend, but know when it would be wise to connect with someone trained to work more comprehensively with those experiencing suicidal thoughts and ideation. If you are talking with someone who has specific plans for ending their life, hook them up with a crisis center or trained mental health provider. You might provide further support by offering to make the first phone call together, help them search for clinicians, or accompany them to their first treatment session.
Don’t promise confidentiality. Though you may be asked to guarantee confidentiality, try to avoid making this promise if you believe someone is close to suicide. Privacy is important, but the best response you can offer your friend is that because you care about them, you’re unwilling to make that promise. You are taking his/her words and behavior seriously, and this is the kind of situation you cannot handle alone.
Check in on them. Even if you think the crisis has passed, check in on your friend regularly to see how they are coping and feeling. Give them a call, send a text message, stop by their house, make plans to grab coffee or dinner…anything to let them know you care and are thinking about them. Again, just being there and offering your presence can be extremely helpful.
If you or someone you know is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, help is available through the 24-hour, confidential, toll-free National Suicide Prevention Line by dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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