The World Health Organization estimates over 700,000 people take their own lives every year. Suicidal thoughts and feelings can be intensely frightening for the person experiencing them, as well as the people in their life, which leads many people to wonder how to help someone who is suicidal. Helping these people often starts with recognizing the warning signs and not minimizing how serious they are.
Recognizing Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior
Suicide is a desperate attempt to escape constant or overwhelming suffering. Someone who feels this way thinks that taking their own life is the only way to find relief. However, there are a range of alternatives to taking their own life – they’re just unable to see them. When considering how to help someone who is suicidal, recognizing the warning signs is often the first step. Perhaps the most important factor to consider here is your gut feeling – don’t ignore your concerns. People often do their best to hide that they are feeling suicidal.
The following are warning signs of suicidal behavior:
Changes to the person’s personality or behavior
- An increase in anxious thoughts/behaviors
- Becoming more withdrawn
- Increase in mood swings
- Becoming easily irritable
- Insomnia or oversleeping
- Acting reckless and irresponsible
- Avoiding activities that they usually enjoy
- Avoiding social activities/people that they know
- Negative talk about themselves/their abilities/their future
- Struggling at work/school/studies
Indicators that someone may be seriously contemplating suicide
- Openly discussing things like death, taking their life, or dying
- Making threats about taking their life
- A sudden bout of cheeriness after a prolonged depressive period
- Seeking help by telling someone about how they’re feeling – this might be a professional, family member, or friend
- Making preparations for ending their life, such as buying a gun, or storing up medication
- Organizing their affairs by making a will, writing a letter, or giving away their precious belongings
Be Direct in Talking About Suicide
When considering how to help someone who is suicidal, it is essential that you speak to them openly and honestly. Many people fear that it might be counterproductive to ask someone whether they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, but professionals actually recommend asking the person directly. Letting them know that you hear them and want to be there for them doesn’t make their thoughts or intentions around suicide worse. Instead, it encourages them to communicate how they’re feeling freely.
If you do not feel personally or emotionally equipped to listen to and support someone with suicidal ideations, you could help direct them to a professional such as a doctor, a therapist, or a helpline.
However, if you do feel equipped to manage their concerns, then try to remember the following tips for talking to someone who is suicidal:
- Take their concerns seriously – it’s a common misconception that people who talk about taking their lives don’t actually do it. If someone tells you that they’re thinking about suicide, it’s important to listen to them.
- Don’t judge them – even though how they’re feeling might come as a huge shock to you; it’s important to keep blame or judgment out of the conversation. Speaking to you about how they’re feeling was likely a big step for them.
- Use open-ended questions – these are questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. “What are you thinking/feeling?” and “What do you do next?” are open-ended questions that will allow the person to share more.
- Be patient – opening up to you may be difficult for them. Allow them to take their time with their answers – even though you may be upset and anxious to hear what they have to say.
- Be direct – suicide is often still considered a taboo topic and, therefore, talking about it can be uncomfortable both for those experiencing the feelings and those listening to them. Being direct and not avoiding the topic means that you can help the person to feel understood and less ashamed about their feelings.
Suicide Safety Plan
If you’re wondering how to help someone who is suicidal, then you may want to consider helping them make a suicide safety plan. This is a written plan or set of instructions that can be used when someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts. They are designed to be used in order as they involve steps that escalate until the person is safe and less at risk.
A doctor or therapist is well-trained in creating suicide safety plans. Therefore, you can help someone seek support from a professional and also have a working knowledge of safety plans for yourself.
Include the following steps in a suicide safety plan, and make sure that the individual knows that they are to be completed in order:
- Create a list of self-soothing activities – these should be comforting actions that the person takes when they’re upset. This might be as simple as listening to music they enjoy, taking a walk, going for a run, or doing some breathing exercises. If they struggle to think of any self-soothing activities, then encourage them to think of ones that their friends use or to take up new ones such as meditation or yoga.
- Ask them to list their reasons for living – when someone is experiencing strong suicidal thoughts, it’s possible that they are too involved in their pain to see the positive elements of their life. Help them list the important things or people in their lives and keep going until the immediate suicidal thoughts pass. This might be family, friends, pets, or even religious affiliations.
- Create a list of contacts – write down the phone numbers of people that the person feels safe and secure talking to, such as partners, family, friends, or someone from their religious organization. These people might help to distract them when they’re feeling suicidal. Make sure to include back-ups in case some people aren’t able to answer their phones.
- Create a list of resources – help the person make a list of professional resources they can contact when they need to. This might be the number for emergency services, a mental health professional, or helplines. The following are a list of 24-hour suicide helplines:
- 911 for immediate emergency services.
- 211 for emergency referrals to social and community services when you are not dealing with an immediate, life-threatening incident.
- Samaritans – phone 116 123 – text SHOUT to 85258
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – phone 1-800-273-8255
- For the hearing and speech impaired – phone 1-800-799-4889
- The Veterans Crisis Line – phone 1-800-273-8255
- IMAlive Crisis Chatline – www.imalive.org
- Crisis Text Line – text HOME to 741-741
- The Trevor Project (for gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and youths that are questioning their sexuality) – phone 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678
- Make a list of safety steps – what can be done to make sure that their environment is safe? This might involve getting rid of dangerous items such as drugs, knives, or guns, or going to another location where they feel safe until their suicidal urge has passed. Either you or someone from their contacts list may be able to help them remove these items from their vicinity or bring them somewhere safe.
- Ask for emergency help – on some occasions, a suicide safety plan might not be enough to deter someone from their suicidal thoughts. When this happens, it is important to seek emergency support such as by going to the emergency room. Write down the name and address of the nearest emergency room, their GP, local taxi numbers, and save the addresses in their GPS or phone.
Furthermore, if you are concerned that a friend or family member is suicidal, there’s plenty that you can do to help them. Contact HPA/LiveWell in Albany, New York at 518-218-1188 as we can provide you with the information and support you need.
With our new online therapy capabilities, HPA/LiveWell can now offer mental health services to anyone within not only the Capital Region, the Hudson Valley region – Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck, Newburgh, White Plains, Kingston, and surrounding New York cities, but we can offer mental health services and eating disorder treatment to anyone throughout New York state.