Content notice: I’m going to discuss suicidality quite candidly, and make some harm reduction suggestions that some people might not agree with. I strongly recommend that anyone who is feeling suicidal see a mental health professional.
If you are lucky, you will never have a friend who expresses to you that they are feeling suicidal because none of your friends will be suicidal. However odds are that you will know someone who will struggle with suicidality at some point in their lives, and in my experience having people who are committed to their relationship with you can make all the difference. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to be really unhelpful when someone is experiencing suicidality and every person feels differently about what is helpful and what is really frustrating and downright negative. Beyond that, the moment you hear a friend say “I want to die” you tend to get hit with a wave of panic and terror that can leave you feeling completely lost about how to proceed.
Deep breath. Let’s prepare for this moment before it happens, together. Now I should note that I am not a mental health professional nor can I speak for EVERY person who has ever been suicidal, but I do have personal experience with what is helpful for me, I have been a support person for other suicidal individuals before, and I crowdsource a lot among my friends with these experiences and I can give you some information on generally what IS helpful and what is NOT helpful. Your mileage may vary, and I always recommend doing your best to suss out which particulars are best for the specific person you’re trying to help.
Let’s start with some of the big no nos. These are a little easier to find on the interwebs:
- Other people have it worse.
You know what, everyone who says this can go suck an egg. Of course other people have it worse. That’s not the point. All suffering is real and valid, and whether or not there are other people who can survive worse is completely irrelevant to whether I can survive this or want to survive this. We all have different limits and other people’s lives are not important in a conversation about MY life and how I feel about it.
- Suicide is cowardly/selfish.
Ah yes, the best way to help someone who is already feeling so awful about themselves that they want to die is to increase their level of shame and guilt. Wait no, the opposite of that. It is not selfish to want an end to pain, it is not cowardly to feel that you’ve reached your breaking point. If you’ve never been there you can fuck right off.
- You just want attention.
So what? No really. Why is it bad to want attention? Every human needs attention or we become isolated and sad. Now it’s likely that the person doesn’t actually want attention, but even if they did, if they’re in the amount of pain that they’re considering suicide don’t they need some attention? If a person had a broken leg and kept yelling “someone help me” they would be asking for attention too, but we understand that they need it to help them manage a problem. Why is mental health any different?
- Just get outside more/do yoga/use essential oils/etc.
Look if someone has reached the point of suicide you better believe that they have already tried 99% of everything you’re going to suggest and it hasn’t worked. This kind of response to someone who is at the end of their rope implies they should just be trying harder, and it’s incredibly condescending when you (person who doesn’t feel this way) thinks you know better what to do than the person who is actually living the experience.
- It’ll be better tomorrow/this is temporary.
For some people this kind of reminder is somewhat helpful, but typically when you’re thinking of suicide these feelings aren’t some kind of fleeting thing. They’ve been around for a while. It probably WON’T be better tomorrow and suggesting that the problem will just fix itself seems absurd when you’re in the middle of pain that feels neverending.
Now if you’re a reasonably empathetic person who has spent any time around mental illness a lot of those won’t be too out of left field. Where things become a little bit more challenging is when you’re trying to come up with GOOD ideas of what to say. These are the things that have typically been more helpful to me when I was in an awful place.
- I’m here for you, and I’m not leaving.
One of the important things you can do is demonstrate that you care about the person. Your time and attention are the most valuable things you can give to someone who feels that they are worthless/unwanted/alone. If they try to do the whole “oh you don’t need to, I’m just a burden, it’s not a big deal” then insist that you would like to stay.
- Don’t ask open ended questions.
Every person will have different needs when they’re in a crisis situation, so I can’t tell you “stay close to them” or “hug them” or any other specific suggestions for how to perk them up. But what I can say is that when you’re in a crisis point making choices is very hard and it can be incredibly hard to think of things that sound like they’d be better. I like to offer either two options: do you want me to stay here or go elsewhere and text you? Or else make a suggestion and see if it’s accepted: I’d like to make you some food. Is that ok? Don’t be discouraged if they say no to a lot of things. Oftentimes nothing sounds good. Sometimes you may just have to try something and if they reject it, that’s ok (make food, put it in front of them, see if it gets eaten). When you’re trying to help someone who is suicidal think of yourself as a caretaker. They may need help with things you don’t expect. Accept that level of responsibility for the time you’re helping. Accept that it’s not about you.
- Literally the thing I will say for every mental health problem: deal with the basics first.
If possible, check in with your person to see if they have eaten, slept, moved their body, taken medications, showered, or done the other basic human tasks that make your body feel functional. If they have not, try to make those things happen. Bring them food, bring them their meds, walk down the block with them. Whenever possible, do the thing with them. That might even mean going to a therapy appointment with them. Having another body there can be what it takes to get past the inertia of depression.
- Thank you for telling me.
We don’t talk about suicide. Like at all. It’s considered shameful and taboo and bad. It can be scary for someone who discloses. Don’t be infantilizing or weird about it, but let them know you appreciate that they let you in and shared a really vulnerable thing with you. It shows a huge amount of trust, and it’s very brave. You can use that as an opportunity to remind them of their own abilities: not everyone can break past the fear and share. This is also a great opportunity to validate what they’re feeling: yes, it does suck and you’re sorry that they have to go through it. It’s hard and nasty and painful. It’s also surmountable.
- Tell me what’s going on/what you’re feeling/what the thoughts sound like.
Suicidality comes in a lot of flavors. Some people feel that they are a burden. Some people feel that no one cares about them. Sometimes a specific event has triggered it. Let them vent and validate all those feelings. Learn more about where they’re coming from. Don’t argue, because Suicidal Brain is not logical, but you may be able to give them some reminders (if they say “no one loves me” you can be like “ah yes but here I am and yes I do and you don’t get to tell me I don’t. I will make you a sign that says I love you. I know your brain doesn’t believe it, but try to trust me).
- Be proactive and honest.
If you find out that a friend is in this kind of a place, don’t wait for them to reach out to you. Follow up a day after you’ve had a conversation. Check in to see how they’re doing. Ask them to do things. You are going to have to drive the relationship right now and that commitment could be their lifeline. Additionally, people who are on the brink often have a high bullshit meter: we often suspect others of lying to us to make us feel better. Be sincere. Don’t say things you don’t mean. Obviously you care about this person because you are doing the work to show up. Focus on the things that you love about them.
Of course I will recommend that a person who is suicidal see a professional. Lots of people have legitimate reasons for being suspicious of professionals, and I understand that, but it can be helpful for many. I can’t personally recommend calling 911 because of the horrible experiences I’ve had and that I’ve heard of from others.
Do you have additional suggestions? Post in comments!