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A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping People with Suicidal Thoughts

man talking to his therapist about suicide
By LifeStance Health on September 28, 2022

This content has been updated from previous article on September 03, 2020.

Suicide is a serious problem and is getting worse. So much so that September 10 has recently been proclaimed World Suicide Prevention Day. This unprecedented step has been taken in the hope of creating understanding, commitment, and action to help curtail suicide across the country.

It is startling that suicide is one of the leading causes of death across all age groups, and accounts for the second-highest number of deaths in people aged 10 to 35. As prevalent and terrifying as this fact may be, there’s another important fact to keep in mind: when you know what to do, you can help a friend or family member who is feeling suicidal.

Given these facts, it is reasonable to think that at some point in your life, someone you know may have thoughts of suicide. By having a plan of action you will have a better chance of helping them through this difficult time.

1. Ask If They Have Thoughts of Suicide

Many people are afraid to ask someone if they are thinking of suicide. Not only is it a difficult conversation, but people worry that by even bringing up the subject, they will plant the idea in someone’s mind. However, research shows that speaking frankly about suicidal thoughts can actually decrease thoughts of suicide.

When you open up this discussion, make sure that the other person understands that you are not passing judgment and that you’re there to support them. Ultimately, you want to get to the most pressing question: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Asking other key questions can help you arrive at the answer.

To discover is a loved one is considering suicide, you may ask:

  • How are you feeling about all the things going on in your life?
  • Do you ever just want to give up?
  • Do you wish you were dead or you could go to sleep and not wake up?
  • Have you had any thoughts about killing yourself?
  • Have you thought about how you might do this?
  • Do you have any intention of acting on these thoughts?
  • Have you taken any steps (like making a will or writing a suicide note) to end your life?

2. Listen and Connect

If the person gives any indication of wanting to die, stay with them. Whether by phone or in-person, it’s important to be with them however you can. Listen to them talk about their experiences and feelings but don’t try to minimize them or solve their issues.

If you can’t physically be near the person, ask who is nearby that can support them. Listen to the answer carefully and try to find out how to contact them. Encourage them to reach out to that person or someone else nearby, or do it for them if they are unwilling.

During this step, you do not need to be concerned that you’re validating their wish to die. You are reinforcing your connection to them, which is important. This step can stop the person’s feelings of isolation, which often contribute to suicidal thoughts and actions.

3. Establish Immediate Safety

Once your friend or loved one is reminded of their connection to you, it’s time to get them to safety.

If a friend or loved one is considering suicide, you may want to ask:

  • When you think about suicide, do you have a plan?
  • Are you thinking of acting on this plan today?
  • Do you have access to weapons of any kind?
  • Do you have medication on which you could overdose?
  • Are you close to the place you would go to end your life?

The goal here is to understand how the person would die by suicide if it were to happen. Then, put both time and physical distance between the person and that method. For example, if your friend or loved one says they would use a firearm you would want to immediately remove their access to all firearms.

4. Help Them Find Appropriate Help

You likely know that your loved one needs help, but knowing what kind of help to get can be more difficult. This is another case in which it’s important to listen and make a plan based on the person’s individual circumstances.

If the person has a specific plan to harm themselves, immediate action should be taken. They should be urged to go to the nearest emergency room right away. If you are not sure whether the emergency room is the right place to go or they are resisting your suggestion, please call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. They can give you the guidance you need to  take the best course of action.

Remember that there are many different types of suicidal thoughts. Some mean the person is in more immediate danger. If your loved one is having passive suicidal thoughts with no plan, they may benefit more from contacting professionals who specialize in mental health care. If you’re not sure, calling the 988 and taking their advice is the best choice.

5. Keep in Touch

An estimated 43% of all suicide deaths occur in the month after someone is released from the hospital, and 47% of those people die before their first follow-up appointment. Stark statistics like these show how important it is to follow-up with someone during and after treatment for suicidal thoughts.

Once your friend or loved one has gotten help, be sure to stay connected to them. Phone calls, texts, and messages can make a big difference. This continued support reduces the risk of feeling isolated again, and can even reduce the risk of suicide. You can also let your friend or  loved one know that you are a safe person to talk to if they ever think about suicide again.

Acknowledging suicide and the impact it has on our communities is the first step to prevention. The creation of World Suicide Prevention Day acknowledges that everyone can help. As it says in this new proclamation, “From committed crisis counselors who serve on hotlines and in schools to clinicians, behavioral health care practitioners, faith leaders, teachers, friends, and family members — we each have a role to play.”