How to Help Someone You Worry May Be Suicidal
Don’t doubt the difference you can make by reaching out.
The topic of mental health and suicide can be daunting, and down-right frightening, when we know someone going through serious emotional turmoil. But there is much friends and family can do to support struggling loved ones. Knowing what to do – and what not to do – can make a world of difference.
(If you yourself are suicidal, there are helplines you can call at the end of this article. You are not alone.)
How to help someone you worry may be suicidal
Know what to watch for.
Ideally, emotional and mental health problems will be acknowledged, and a professional consulted, long before someone reaches the point of considering suicide. If you’re confused as to whether to reach out to a person you sense is struggling and offer help, please bear in mind that a person would always prefer to know that someone cares for them. When in doubt, address a person’s struggles sensitively, proactively and with openness.
Many people do not get the help they need before reaching a breaking point. Below, answering ‘yes’ means your loved one is displaying possible warning signs of suicide. But also know that not every suicidal person shows these signs; many show only one or two; many show none at all and successfully hide their struggles. So, trust your gut if you feel something is wrong.
- Do they express feelings of hopelessness, that there is no other “way out”?
- Do they express deep feelings of desperation, or inadequacy?
- Have they lost interest in their passions, work or hobbies?
- Are they sleeping much more than usual, or much less?
- Are they very anxious or agitated?
- Are they self-harming or exhibiting reckless behavior?
- Have they withdrawn from family and friends?
- Do they have unusual bouts of rage?
- Do they express feelings of being a burden?
- Are they already struggling with depression?
- Have they been preoccupied with the topic of death or dying – talking or writing about it lately?
- Have they experienced a recent trauma or crisis, such as death of a spouse, break-up, divorce, diagnosis of a serious illness, or serious financial problems?
Stay with the person.
If you know someone who is thinking about suicide, you should not leave them by themselves. Also, remove anything that might be harmful to the person, such as sharp objects, strong medication, etc.
Ask directly — and listen.
If the person is already talking about suicide or death (“What a relief it must be to be dead” kind of statements), then it is best to also ask directly – for example, “Do you feel that about your life?” If they have not directly brought up death or suicide, then start the conversation with a caring observation, such as, “You seem very different lately, and I am deeply concerned as to how you feel you are doing. How are you feeling?”
Do not be alarmed if very strong feelings come up from the distressed person, and try to receive them without reacting or interrupting, so that they experience some form of relief. Let the person express emotion in the way that he or she wants. Allow the person to cry, yell, swear and do what is necessary to release their emotions. However, do not allow the person to become violent or harm himself or herself.
Suspend judgment, and offer understanding.
Once they are comfortable, try help them to understand they are not alone — that a lot of other people feel like this and that getting professional help can ease their pain.
The most important aspect to focus on is being compassionate and to try to understand where they are coming from. Try to suspend your judgement of them, and avoid comments like “snap out of it,” “it’s all in your head,” or “don’t worry and just think happy thoughts.” Instead, focus on being empathetic and being receptive to listening to the person, so that they do not withdraw from you.
Try to connect with the part of them that wants to live.
This involves asking, rather than telling – telling someone what they have to live for is not helpful. A person is more likely to feel more confident in a decision, like the decision to live, if it is their own, rather than the enforced agenda of another. For example, I vividly recall one of my first clients, a young 16-year-old came to our appointment with a decisive air about her, and told me she had bought a bottle of strong medication from a chemist, who gave it to her readily, without a prescription, as though “he wanted to get rid of me too.”
As hard-hitting as her words were, this gave me an opening to what was going on inside her psyche. I asked her whom she felt also wanted to get rid of her, to open up the conversation further, and then she poured out her pain of having her mum leave her and her siblings as a 5-year-old, and the deep sense of rejection she carried with her. I heard her out without interrupting, and when there was a natural pause in the conversation, I gently asked her if there were people who loved her. Slowly, she started to share about her siblings, her father, her best friend.
I reflected back to her about how part of her felt like she was unloved and not worth living, but also part of her felt loved and validated by her immediate family and best friend, and I appealed to the part of her that still wanted to live by asking her speak to her father about these feelings she had and to also give the bottle of medication to him. She cried, she wept bitterly, she raged — but ultimately, she tentatively, thankfully agreed to my request. She continued therapy, and today, no one would ever know how much she went through as a teenager, looking at how poised and elegant she is now.
Seek professional help as soon as possible.
Some problems we can’t solve ourselves. To help a suicidal loved one, or if you are feeling suicidal yourself, please seek the help of a professional therapist and/or psychiatrist. In an SOS situation, don’t hesitate to contact the following agencies to speak to a person who is trained to help you.
Whom to call if you or a loved one is contemplating suicide
A 24/7 suicide prevention helpline that takes national and international calls.
+91 44246 40050 | 44246 40060 | email@example.com
Visit in person:
#11, Park View Road
A general counselling and suicide prevention helpline available Monday to Saturday, 8 am to 10 pm.
+91 22 2556 3291 | firstname.lastname@example.org
A general counselling and suicide prevention service helpline available every day, 3 pm to 9 pm.
+91 84229 84528 | 84229 84529 | 84229 84530 | email@example.com
Visit in person:
Behind Ambika Sarees
Dadasaheb Phalke Road
Dadar (E) 400014 Mumbai
A 24/7 general counselling and suicide prevention helpline.
+ 91 022 2754 6669 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit in person:
104, Sunrise Arcade
Plot No. 100, Sector 16
Koparkhairane 400709 Navi Mumbai
A suicide prevention helpline available every day from 12 pm to 8 pm.
+91 99220 01122 | 1 800 843 4353 (toll free)
Visit in person:
Dastur Girls School
Arya Punj Timblo is a professionally trained and practicing adult and child psychotherapist who has spent 10 years specializing in child psychology and 12 years working with adults in therapy. She holds a Master's and Specialization Degree in Psychotherapy and Counselling from the prestigious Regent's College in London and has worked in London, Mumbai and Goa as a therapist as well as a lecturer.