The topics of mental health and depression didn’t rise into mainstream conversation until a few years ago. While it’s better late than never, this sadly means the majority of us were never openly educated on how to support someone who is struggling and contemplating suicide.
Many people were trained in CPR to help someone in a physical crisis. But until now, nobody was empowered with the tools to help someone in the throes of a mental crisis, despite the fact that it’s a far more commonly faced situation.
So, if the day finally came, where a loved one turned to you and uttered the words, “I don’t really feel like being here anymore…” and you were left stunned, and feeling at a loss for what to do, or say – or suddenly felt a huge amount of discomfort and pressure to “fix” the problem, like the weight of someone’s life was in your hands – that’s totally normal, and you didn’t mess up.
If this is your situation, I want to start by saying a few things.
1. Relax. It’s okay. I know this feels really heavy, but you don’t have to fix anything. And I’m about to share with you the simplest, most effective ways to support someone who is suicidal.
2. Suicidal ideation is an incredibly NORMAL and sadly under-addressed human condition. If someone has gotten this far, all it means is that the levels of their emotional pain is exceeding their abilities to cope with it. When that glass spills over, they either seek outside support to manage, or fantasize about – or even try – ending their life.
3. The fact that someone opened up to you about these feelings is a great sign. It not only means that they want to live, and they want help, but they trusted you enough to ask for it. You have the opportunity to see and love them more fully than anyone probably ever has in their life before.
4. Thank You. So much. Seriously. The fact that you’re proactively looking for guidance to support someone and want to do better, is amazing. You are such a beautiful person.
So, what do you do?
Earlier in life, the best advice you might have been given to deal with this situation was a teacher or advertisement saying, “If someone you know is suicidal, tell them to call this number…” and directing you to a suicide hotline. I’m so glad that it exists as a service, but it is FAR from the best thing, and especially the first thing, you could offer someone.
I’m going to share the best strategies and approaches I’ve learned and used over the years to help someone contemplating suicide. First, we need to address any discomfort and unease you might be feeling, which will get in the way of navigating this in the best possible way.
Dealing With Your Discomfort
The topic of suicide makes most people deeply uncomfortable. Why is that?
The truth is – unless you’ve had some personal trauma from previous experiences with suicide – the level of panic and discomfort you feel isn’t coming from a place you might expect. It’s not because of the thought of someone taking their own life. It’s a reflection of your comfort level with your own emotions in general, and particularly dark and painful ones. In other words, it’s a sign of repression.
This core unease stems from being unfamiliar with radical vulnerability and divulging raw pain. When you don’t know how to confront and talk about your own emotions, how could you be expected to comfortably hold space for someone else’s?
Maybe you grew up in a household where no one discussed their feelings. At some point, you might have been taught (directly or indirectly) that emotions aren’t welcome in conversation, and you should never complain or show weakness. You might have learned that sadness is a burden to other people.
You may never have had the opportunity to experience, or practice responding to, someone letting down their guard to ask for help when they were struggling, and revealing the messy, unrefined truth of their inner life.
Whether it was learned from your family, or a survival strategy you developed somewhere along the way to cope with a painful situation, this all amounts to a deep-seated avoidance to the wild tides of emotional life. There are highs, and there are lows. A lot of people are working very hard to hide or deaden themselves against feeling those lows, but they’re inevitable, and sharing them with other people is how most effectively move through them.
If you’re avoiding your own shit, the natural reaction when someone admits to feeling suicidal, or puts any other heavy emotional subject matter on the table, will be to eject out of your body and launch into your head. Within your own nervous system, you’re running away from the situation, which is the opposite of what you need to do.
In fact, this very avoidance pattern is what lies at the heart of the issues that drive a lot of people to feeling suicidal in the first place.
They don’t know how to ask for help, or have the tools and space to talk about their struggles openly, so they stuff it down and try to carry on. But this is how most people are moving through life every day. It’s just that they’re lucky enough to not have big enough sources of emotional pain to build up until the dam breaks, and they can’t take it anymore.
It’s this collective avoidance and repression that has kept this entire conversation in the dark for so many years, and it will continue to do so.
If you’re noticing this is your natural inclination, take this opportunity as an invitation to practice looking into what you’re avoiding within yourself, and find where you can make peace with the less-than pretty things you might be keeping locked up.
I’m writing this not only to help you support someone else, but for you to support yourself, and make sure you’re building the internal awareness necessary to live an even fuller life, and avoid any of your own potential emotional struggles down the line.
This lack of comfort and familiarity with emotional pain, as well as the preparedness to respond, is what causes people to take the worst approach, and say all the wrong things to someone contemplating suicide.
Here’s What NOT to Say
When someone shares, your first instinct might be to try and make it go away, or stamp it out like a fire in your living room. But the best approach is to stand back, watch, and listen. ACCEPT this person’s reality and meet them where they’re at.
Don’t shut down, don’t run from it, don’t resist it, don’t minimize it, don’t invalidate it, don’t rationalize it, and don’t try to shuffle them past it.
The worst thing you could do is invalidate their experience. Whether they’re simply unequipped, or can’t handle sitting in uncomfortable situations, most people will respond by saying something like:
“But your life is great. What do you have to be sad about? You’re so fortunate. Look around at everything you have. There are children starving in Africa…”
In other words, “Your problem isn’t real. Get over it.”
Even with the best of underlying intentions, this approach is a slap in the face to someone who bared their soul in a very real, very raw human moment. It’s like someone running up to you on the battlefield with a gaping wound, and you telling them it shouldn’t be there, so suck it up and shake it off.
It might suddenly feel like this person is standing on a ledge and you need to talk them down. But that’s not what’s happening. You don’t need to know how to solve the problem, or rush to figuring out how. That’s not what the person is asking you to do. They need SUPPORT, not a solution.
Coming from the same solution-oriented mindset, some people also might ask, “Are you on any medication/have you been taking your meds?” This might be an appropriate question from a medical professional. But not from a friend or loved one. Asking this could again make them feel marginalized, or insulted, as if their pain is just something they shouldn’t have, that could be eased like a case of the sniffles.
When someone finally confides in another person that they’ve been feeling suicidal, that is likely a HUGE step for them. They’ve gotten to this point because they’ve been suffering in silence. It takes strength and courage to be so vulnerable and open up to tell someone they’ve been hurting so much. Honour and receive this as the gift that it is.
What You Should Say
Take the opposite approach and begin by listening to and acknowledging what they’ve shared. Instead of the, “But you shouldn’t feel this way” routine, after hearing them out you can say, “Yeah, I get that. It totally makes sense why you feel this way. I can’t imagine how hard that’s been.”
Do your best not to jump into your head because you’re uncomfortable with what they’re bringing to you. Just allow it to be. The shared experience of a person’s emotional pain is in itself one of the greatest healing forces. Take a deep breath, and know that their feelings don’t have to change right now, and you don’t have to be some hero that changes or ‘fixes’ them.
You don’t need to give solutions, talk them down, or tell them how much their parents would be impacted by the decision to kill themselves. Stick with their emotional reality and experience. Be curious about it. Your job is to hold space, embrace, listen, relate (if you can), and support.
If you have been in a similar place, be honest about that. Share your experiences and struggles. If you haven’t been in a similar place, you should be honest about that too – “Wow, I can’t imagine what that must feel like. It hurts me just to know you’re hurting so much.”
What matters the most is CARING and empathy.
Here are some healthier things you could say:
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it had gotten this far… I would love to hear more about how you’ve been feeling lately if you’re willing to share with me?”
“Thank you for telling me, I am so glad you’re my friend. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you in whatever way you need me…”
“I love you and I am a resource to you. Please lean on me in any way that you may need to. I want to help you through this.”
“Is there anything I can do?” (And then actually do it – and follow up with them to check in on their progress.)
Only offer them what you can. Don’t overstretch yourself to an unrealistic degree. In a panic to “fix” the situation, some people will overextend themselves and make a bunch of empty promises in an attempt to make the suicidal person fell better. But lip service and broken promises are far less helpful than small, genuine acts of love.
Offer Them a Hug
This sounds cheesy, but an extended hug (over 20 seconds) regularly causes people to burst into tears. That’s not only because they’re probably been deprived of physical touch, which is a basic human need for neurological regulation, but because it implicitly sends the message, “I care. I see you. You matter to me.”
Without words, you can drive this healing message home into the deepest layers of their brain and body with a long bear hug. The core healing in this whole interaction is just that – interaction. Human connection and touch is the best things you can offer the person.
Whether the person is a touchy hugger or not, pretty much everyone will be receptive in this moment of vulnerability. Frame it as a personal desire, rather than a pat-on-the-back consolation. “Can I give you a hug?” or “All I want to do right now is give you a hug. Can I?”
Use Humour, Wisely
When people are feeling suicidal, they’ve usually been stuck in their own heads, and taking their thoughts and pain very seriously. Whether they know it or not, they’re desperate for a fresh angle on their situation. Part of the gift you can offer them is the levity you immediately have by being outside of their mental ruts.
This is only effective and healthy when done after hearing and empathizing with the person’s true feelings. It’s also best when done with love, rather than dutifully trying to lighten the mood. Another poor response people have due to emotional issues is to be the uplifting mascot, who immediately tries to avoid the situation by lightening the mood and being forcibly cheerful, or comedic. This just feels fake and is extremely unhelpful.
Humour shouldn’t be used as a tactic to leapfrog the person’s emotional reality. It should be a genuine afterthought that comes from the heart. If it feels right to do, helping the person get a few good laughs can help relieve a ton of pressure and lighten their load.
One of more recent times a friend came to me to get support, this exact approach worked wonders.
I first sat in silence, heard him out, and empathized with everything he was going through. He was having serious health battles, felt socially isolated and like no one cared. He was dealing with more pain than he knew how to cope with. Given all the data, it made complete sense to feel that way. I related with my own experiences of sitting on the brink of suicide, gave him my love and my word that I’d do anything I could to help.
After all that, I started poking fun at some of his trains of thought, and put on an exaggerated impersonation of the dark, negative inner dialogue they’d been listening to. Suddenly, he went from crying tears of pain to tears of laughter in a matter of seconds. He hadn’t felt that way in weeks.
When we finished the conversation, the issue didn’t suddenly resolve, or end on a high note. But we had connected so thoroughly that I was able to make him feel seen, heard, loved and supported. I checked in with him every few days after that, made time to hang out, and that person is still here, grateful, and doing better than ever.
It’s very likely this person and the conversation will be on your mind non-stop once you finish it. For both of you, it’s smart to establish a loose agreement for follow up contact. This way, you can put any voice in the back of your mind that’s worry about hassling them, or being overbearing, to rest.
How often would it feel good for you to check in? How will you do that? Offer support in whatever way you authentically want to (which could be as simple as sending a text every day, calling or watching a movie once a week, or going to their home to cook them a healthy dinner and staying the night) and see how they might best feel supported in this time. What do they need/want from you? What would make them feel best supported?
The person probably won’t be able to think much further past that moment, given how much mental effort it took to even open up in the first place. But there’s a chance they might be able to tune into what might make them feel better.
Regular phone calls offer more connection than text messages, with in-person visits obviously being the best option.
If that initial conversation impacted you, or if it made you think, or inspired you in some way, tell them when you’re catching up. Let them know how it made you feel to go through the process, and have them open up to you, or take you to such a raw place. Be engaged and share in the development of the situation with them.
Let them feel honoured for having reached out, and safe and encouraged to continue to share themselves. This is the biggest part of this process. Be present, drop into your heart, give love, and you will go far beyond saving a life, to transforming it. If you truly open yourself to this, you’ll find yourself deeply transformed as well.
Dedicated to your success,
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