If you’ve ever had a friend tell you they’re having suicidal ideation, it can be really scary. It can catch you off guard and leave you feeling helpless. It’s not like we thoroughly learn how to cope with mental illness, let alone suicidal thoughts, in school. As a society, we shy away from discussing suicide since it makes so many people feel uncomfortable.
However, we need to open up the dialogue so that we can break the stigmas which stop people from reaching out for help in the first place, and so that we know what to do when someone is brave enough to tell you that they are having suicidal ideation, or if they are showing warning signs.
Here are six tips for how to help a suicidal friend.
Recognize the warning signs
Your friend might not feel comfortable telling you outright that they’re having suicidal ideation. Instead, they might say other things to drop hints, or you might notice a change in their behavior.
According to Samantha B. Strong, LCSW, ACM-SW, a clinical social worker for UCLA Behavioral Health Associates, some behavioral changes may include if your friend is:
- Acting suddenly withdrawn, being antisocial, and not participating in activities they usually love
- Acting very hopeless about the future
- Being suddenly calm or upbeat after experiencing depressive symptoms. Although this seems positive, Strong says this could also be a sign that they’re considering suicide. “This is because some people will feel a sense of serenity or even freedom once they have come up with a plan for how to end their life because there is a sense that they will be free from the depressive symptoms that they have been struggling with,” she says.
- Doing things that resemble goodbyes. According to Strong, it can be a sign that somebody already has made plans to attempt suicide if they say something like, “Would you make sure my family is okay if I died?” or “I want (insert important possession) to be yours if anything ever happens to me.”
Knowing these warning signs is important, but it’s crucial to know that you’re not at fault if you miss them. People have suicidal ideation for a number of reasons, and everyone is different.
Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions
If your friend is showing the above signs, it’s best to be direct with them, and don’t waste time. Strong recommends saying something like, “Have you had any thoughts lately about hurting yourself or ending your life?” She says, “Even though that might seem like a scary or ‘too personal’ question to ask, it could be a huge release for somebody who has been having these thoughts but has been too afraid to say them out loud.”
- When was the last time you had those thoughts?
- Have you thought about how you might end your life?
- When were you thinking about doing this?
Take immediate action if your friend has a plan
If your friend does say they have a plan in place to attempt suicide, you must take action. In this case, you’re dealing with a medical emergency. Strong says you should compassionately tell your friend they need to go to the Emergency Room ASAP because that’s the fastest way they can see a psychiatrist and get help. You can also urge them to tell an adult if they’re under 18. If they refuse, tell an adult yourself. Even if they’re over 18, it’s a good idea to get another trusted adult involved. You shouldn’t have to handle this on your own.
You should ask them if they have a way to get to the hospital, and if they don’t ask them if they’d like you to drive them there if you feel comfortable doing that and are able to. This simple act of accompanying them to the ER can make a big difference in your friend’s comfort level.
If your friend refuses to go to the ER or won’t tell an adult that they need to go there, Strong said one option is to call your local non-emergency police phone number, where you can request someone trained in psychiatric emergencies or crisis intervention to respond. However, police are typically not adequately trained to deal with mental health emergencies such as these. This can put people in certain populations – like Black people, transgender people, autistic people, and more – at risk. So, as an alternative to the police, you can google “psychiatric mobile response team” in your area and see if there is a local team. If there is one in your area, they can send a mental health clinician to your friend’s house in a crisis, and they can help get them assistance.
Urge them to get help
Strong says someone must get professional help if they are having suicidal thoughts, even if they don’t have plans for carrying out the ideation. “This may not require emergency care, but it is still important that your friend seek mental health care so that they do not get to the point where they are in a psychiatric crisis,” Strong says.
You can gently suggest that your friend make an appointment with their primary doctor if they don’t already have a therapist or psychiatrist. Or, you can even help them look up therapists or psychiatrists. Ask them for their insurance information and then you can both browse a site like Psychology Today where you can filter by insurance, location, and specialty to find an expert who might be a fit. Make a list of several providers, and then your friend can get in contact with them.
You can also provide them with resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which are available 24/7.
Don’t be dismissive
When helping someone experiencing suicidal ideation, you should never dismiss or minimize their feelings. This can make them feel worse. Strong says you should avoid saying things like, “Don’t say things like that,” “Don’t worry, be happy!” or “Other people have it a lot worse.” Statements like this can make your friend feel like you think their feelings aren’t real or valid. It might also make them feel guilty for having those feelings. Instead, Strong recommends saying something along these lines:
- “You are not alone. I care about you and I am here for you.”
- “It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel hopeless.”
- “What do you need from me right now?”
These are empathetic, validating statements that acknowledge your friend’s feelings and show that you are willing to listen and help out.
“Most importantly, make sure your friend knows that it takes a lot of bravery to open up about these thoughts and that you are here to support and help them,” says Strong. “Empathy goes a long way, and your friendship and support can be lifesaving.”
Simply be there for them
The next big thing aside from getting your friend some professional help is simply being there for them. They need a friend now more than ever. Ask them what they need from you right now, and tell them you’re happy to help however you can. Even just letting them know that you are there for them to vent if they need can be a big help. If your friend has suicidal ideation but no active plan, ask them if they would like some company, and you can go see them and bring over some snacks, scroll through TikTok, watch a movie, whatever will boost your friend’s mood.
Strong says, “Your friend may be in a place where their depressive symptoms have led them to feel like they want to be alone, and that’s okay, but they may also feel scared of their thoughts and feel like [your] company would keep them safe.”
The bottom line
Knowing how to help a suicidal friend is no easy task, but just being there for them can help. However, you should remember that you don’t need to go through this by yourself.
“Don’t be afraid to ask guidance counselors or other adults for advice if you aren’t sure what to do,” Strong says. “Having a friend who is suicidal is complicated and you shouldn’t ever feel like you have to handle it all on your own.”
Also, after helping out your friend, be sure to practice self-care, because you need to take care of yourself, too, especially after a high-stress situation like this. It’s also important to remember that you are not at fault for any of your friend’s feelings — you always have to protect yourself, and if your friend’s suicidal ideations are too much for you to handle you should absolutely reach out for help yourself.
Remember: your friend is so brave for reaching out for help, and you are so brave and kind for helping them.
Borrowed article from TEEN VOGUE