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How to Help Someone Who Has Suicidal Thoughts

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Every year, around 800,000 people commit suicide. According to the National Child Mortality Database, the suicidal rate in children in the UK presumably increased during the first phase of COVID-19 lockdown. Instead of shaking your head in pity every time you hear about a suicide, a better approach is to play a role in preventing suicide. Yes, you can help prevent suicide if you take several steps. 

A couple of days ago, I attended a webinar on Suicide Awareness and Prevention. One thing the speaker said that stood out to me was this: People with suicidal thoughts rarely ever tell you they’re going to kill themselves. Instead, they leave cues and let you know you in subtle ways that they need help. And if you don’t listen, you’ll never know and might lose a loved one to suicide. 

Some things suicidal people say and do 

Suicidal people won’t always tell you they’re suicidal explicitly. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want you to know they’re contemplating suicide. They say things that scream they’re begging for help but you’ll only know if you listen to them with an open heart and mind. 

If a friend or family member says any of the following things to you, take it as a red flag because they all come from someone having suicidal thoughts:

  • ‘I just want it all to end.’
  • ‘I can’t bear this pain anymore.’
  • ‘I feel like a burden to everyone.’
  • ‘It wouldn’t make any difference if I wasn’t born.’
  • ‘It’s never going to get any better.’

Also, if you notice the following behaviour in a friend, colleague, or family member, make sure you don’t dismiss it as ‘weird’ or ‘strange’:

  • Spending increasing amounts of time alone or not talking to anyone
  • Having recurring thoughts about death or violence
  • Expressing severe hopelessness about a situation 
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Saying goodbye to those close to them even when it doesn’t make sense
  • Giving away their stuff without any reason
  • Mood swings, and expressing severe anxiety or agitation 
  • Buying things like guns or sleeping pills 
  • Excessive drinking or consuming drugs

If you notice it any of the above, never shrug it off but take steps to help the person displaying this behaviour. 

How to help someone who has suicidal thoughts 

Listen without judgement

The number one most important thing you should do to help a suicidal friend is to listen. Suicidal people are deeply hopeless and feel they have no one to talk to because they don’t think anyone cares about them being alive or dead. If they’re opening up to you, it might mean you’re someone they think cares about them. 

The worst thing you can do to them is judge, criticize or rationalize their thoughts and kill any hope they might have left inside them. The best thing you can do is give them a safe space to open up and talk about their feelings. Don’t talk over them, don’t tell them they’re acting weird or being ungrateful. Simply listen.

Secondly, validate their feelings. Tell them their feelings are real. Tell them what they’re going through must be hard. Tell them you’re always there to listen to them. 

Ask questions 

The next most important thing you should do if you think a friend seems suicidal is to eliminate any doubt. You can do this by asking direct questions like the following:

  • Is there anything painful going on in your life that you’d like to talk about?
  • Do you feel like giving up?
  • Do you want to hurt yourself?
  • Are you thinking about killing yourself/ are you thinking about suicide?
  • Have you attempted suicide before?
  • Have you tried to harm yourself?
  • Have you brought anything you plan to use to commit suicide with?

If they answer yes to any of these questions, then take the next steps immediately. 

Convince them to get professional help 

Yes, suicidal people need hugs, they need a shoulder to cry on and you should give them all of this. But that’s not enough and it doesn’t end things. Once you’ve done that, you must get them to seek professional help. 

In most cases, your suicidal friend will be reluctant to reach out to a professional for help. This means you will have to do the work of getting them in touch with a counsellor and setting up their appointment. You might also have to follow up with them to check if they’re showing up to their sessions or not. 

You might be tempted to be their therapist, safe place, and support system at the same time but you alone can’t give them all the help they need. At the end of the day, they need help from a trained professional. Remember, suicide is an extremely sensitive issue and needs to be dealt with as such. 

Get them to consult a suicide helpline 

If you think someone with suicidal thoughts immediately needs help, call a suicide hotline number, and encourage the person to talk. If it’s safe to inform their family, do it. In some cases, families of suicidal people do more harm than good in which case, you might want to inform anyone the person feels closest to. 

Here are several resources for suicide prevention

Stick around with them 

Once you’ve taken the above steps, what’s next? Don’t leave them alone! Just because you’ve gotten them in touch with a professional doesn’t mean the matter is over. They still need your support. So stick around them, ask them how they’re doing, listen to them, and ensure they’re regularly seeing their counsellor. Another important thing to do is to remove any potentially dangerous items from their surroundings. These include items such as knives, razors, ropes, guns, sleeping pills, and insecticides. 

While there’s no guarantee that you can save the life of someone having suicidal thoughts, you can take the necessary steps and do whatever’s in your capacity. Having said this, it’s also important to look after your mental health. Taking care of a suicidal friend is not easy and to give them continued support you need to be in a healthy emotional space. 

Sadia Maqsood holds a degree in psychology and is a freelance writer for hire in mental health. She tweets @becomingsadia 

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