One of the most frightening experiences a person can have is hearing a friend or loved one say they want to die. While it can be tempting to cope with this information by labeling it as attention-seeking behavior or clinging to the myth that people who talk about suicide don’t actually follow through (which is simply untrue), it’s important to take all warning signs of suicide and suicidal ideation seriously.
If the Risk of Suicide Is Imminent
If your friend is at risk of attempting suicide right now, call your local police department or 911 right away. Imminent danger includes a person in possession of a weapon, pills, or other means to follow through with suicide. If possible, don’t leave them alone and do your best to remove any possible means they can use to hurt themselves.
If it is safe, you may also drive your friend to the emergency room. Doctors will assess their mental and physical health and create a clear plan that will help keep them safe.
If, on the other hand, you believe the threat is serious, but not imminent, it’s still important to act, but you may take the time to show support, listen, and encourage them to seek professional help. Help is available. Here are some helpful tips from various suicide prevention resources.
There are a number of different things you can do to be a supportive and empathetic friend. The key is to avoid being judgmental or dismissive of what your friend is feeling.
Speak From the Heart
There are no right or wrong things you can say if you are speaking out of love and concern. Just be yourself. Show that you care by talking to them, holding them while they cry, or whatever else is necessary. Research has shown that acknowledging what people are experiencing may help them process their thoughts and may reduce their suicidal thoughts.
A suicidal person usually is carrying around some burden that they feel they just can’t handle anymore. Offer to listen as they vent their feelings of despair, anger, and loneliness. Sometimes this is enough to lighten the load just enough for them to carry on.
Validate & Show Openness
Be sympathetic, non-judgmental, patient, calm, and accepting. The person will pick up on your attitude and begin to mirror it for themselves.
Confirm Suicidal Thoughts
Don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” Studies show that asking at-risk friends and family members if they are thinking about suicide does not increase suicidal thoughts. You are not putting ideas in their head by asking. On the contrary, asking will give you valuable information about how to proceed and help.
Get the Facts
If the answer is yes, follow up with these three questions:
- Have you thought about how you would do it?
- Do you have what you need to carry out your plan?
- Do you know when you will do it?
Fortunately, the majority of people will either say that they have no definite plans or that they don’t have the nerve to do it themselves. Although this is still a serious situation, you know that they are probably not in imminent danger of hurting themselves. Take their words as a plea for help and proceed with helping them to get the assistance that they need. Urge them to seek professional help as soon as possible.
If the answers they give you lead you to believe they are in immediate danger, do not hesitate to contact the authorities. Your friend may tell you that you are betraying them or making them angry. You may feel like you will lose their friendship if you take action. Just remember that you may permanently lose their friendship if you don’t. When they’re well again, they will thank you.
Keep Them Talking
Talking will allow them to reduce the emotional burden they are carrying and give them time to calm down. The longer you keep them talking, the more you can take the edge off their desperation. As their momentum winds down, it’s harder for them to act on their feelings.
Avoid Trying to Solve the Problem
Try not to offer quick solutions or belittle the person’s feelings. How big they perceive the problem to be and how much they are hurting over it is what counts. Rational arguments do little good to persuade a person when they are in this state of mind. Instead, offer your empathy and compassion for what they are feeling without making any judgments about whether they should feel that way.
When to Seek Help
If the person has already started a suicide attempt, call for help immediately. If they are still conscious, get what information you can about what substances they have ingested, how long ago they took them, how much they took, when they last ate, and their general state of health.
If you are in a situation, such as an online friendship, where you know very little about the person, encourage them to call 911 on their own or to call a suicide hotline in their area. This is your best option, because a local agency, such as 911 or a hotline, may be able to trace the call and get assistance to them. If they refuse to call, do your best to learn whatever personal information you can about the person. Don’t hesitate to ask them for their address, phone number, and other information to help dispatch an emergency crew to their home.
Take Care of Yourself
Dealing with a suicide threat is very stressful. Be sure to care for yourself as well and seek assistance to process and decompress afterward. Talk to a trusted friend, a therapist, your doctor, a religious leader, or anyone who can offer support about what you’ve been through and how you feel about it.
A Word From Verywell
Supporting a friend or loved one experiencing suicidal thoughts can be scary and taxing. Do your best to provide support and get help. If, in spite of your attempts to help, your loved one still attempts or completes suicide, do not blame yourself. Remind yourself that you did the best you could with the information you had and seek help for yourself such as grief counseling or joining suicide survivor support groups.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255 for 24/7 service will connect you with a trained crisis counselor who can offer support and help you find the support you need for yourself or a loved one
- Samaritans: A charity that provides 24/7 confidential emotional support to any person, irrespective of race, creed, age or status, who is suicidal or despairing
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Locate support groups for friends and families of suicide victims
- National Suicide Prevention Directory: Contact information for suicide prevention agencies by state
- Suicide Awareness\Voices of Education: Includes an FAQ, general information on suicide, some common statistics, symptoms of depression, a book list, and much more
- Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network (SPAN): Suicide prevention and awareness organization homepage
- The Yellow Ribbon Program: Program aimed at suicide prevention and awareness
- When the Worst Has Happened: Help and resources for suicide survivors and those left behind after a loved one commits suicide