I work in the mental health rehab and substance abuse detox field. Being on suicide watch is not uncommon where I work. But the reality of life is that suicide doesn't only happen within the walls of rehab and detox facilities. I don't know many adults whose lives haven't been impacted by a friend or loved one either having suicidal thoughts or ending their life.
What's hard is that most of us have no clue what to do if our friend or loved one seems like they're thinking about suicide. We see people on TV who just seem to know what to do in those situations, but we all know that's not how real life usually works. In real life, we feel helpless. We feel afraid of doing the wrong thing and pushing someone over the edge.
To help set the record straight, there are a few myths to be aware of.
Myth: Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide will either make them think about it more or set things in motion.
Truth: Yes, they do.Myth: It won't happen to my loved one. They're stronger than that.
Truth: Suicidal thoughts know no bounds. No one is exempt if the timing and life situation seems bad enough.
Also remember that it doesn't matter if you don't think the situation's a big deal. You just need to understand that it's a big deal to the one you care about. Be sympathetic to their situation from their perspective, not yours.
Myth: Once the decision's been made, nothing will stop them.
Truth: Suicide is one of the top preventable causes of death in the US. It may take additional supervision and care, but it can be stopped. Recovery is possible.
* * *Before I go into what all of us can do to prevent a suicide from happening, I need to say that if you have already lost a loved one through suicide, please do not blame yourself or wonder what would have happened "if." This is a very sensitive issue to many people. If it's a difficult subject for you, please know that it's okay to talk to someone about your experiences. A good support system will be of greater help to you than either going through it alone or trying to get help from people who may be close to you, but don't understand what you're going through.
* * *
The natural human instinct is to survive, to live. So, when someone's in a position in which they want to end their life, we need to start by asking ourselves "why?"
When we hear the various reasons for suicides, the list usually includes bullying, harassment, death of a loved one, severe mental health problems, losing a job, etc. These reasons in and of themselves won't cause suicide, but the prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and loneliness caused by those events can, over time, make them feel like suicide is the only viable option left.
So, what should you do?
Once you feel that something might be wrong, you have to ask if they're contemplating suicide. It's the hardest and most uncomfortable part of the process because we don't know what will come afterward; it could be nothing, but then again, it could be serious. In the end, it doesn't matter. Just ask. Good examples of how to ask include these:
- Are you thinking about ending your life?
- You seem really down on yourself lately. Has suicide entered your mind during all this?
- You were joking about jumping in front of the train the other day. How much of that was really a joke?
"You're not planning on ending it/committing suicide/anything drastic, are you?"
This question isn't good to ask because
- It pushes the person to say what they think you want to hear, and
- It makes them afraid of telling the truth because (back to #1) they think you don't really want to hear it.
If the answer to your question reveals that suicide has become an option, your next step is to find out how serious the matter is. You can find that out by asking, "Do you have a plan to carry it out?" or "Have you thought about how you would do it?" There's a big difference in the mindset of someone who has only thought about it and someone who has actually started planning it.
If they haven't given suicide much thought other than...a thought, chances are some ice cream and a night on the town will probably help. If they've thought of a way to do it and you can tell that it's serious, the first thing you need to understand is that you're not a licensed therapist. You are a friend, and friends are wonderful support systems. But if a suicidal thought has become serious, they need more than a good friend. They need professional help.
The fastest way to get initial help is to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
As long as you're in the USA, they can connect you to a crisis center in your area.
If it's apparent that suicide is more than just a passing thought, there's one more question you need to ask before you even think about leaving them alone.
"Can you promise me that you'll keep yourself safe and call me if you need help?"The executive director at the mental health treatment facility I worked at explained the reasoning behind this question.
If they can't confidently promise to stay safe, do not leave them alone. At. All. Do not let your friend or loved one get more than 10-12 feet away from you...no, not even to go to the bathroom. (Bath towels. Shower curtains. Razors. All of them can be used to end a life.) Your job at this point is to lovingly, yet with urgency, get them to a place in which they can be watched at all times until a licensed professional can intervene.
The information I presented here isn't designed specifically for people in the healthcare field. It's called QPR: Question-Persuade-Refer. You can become QPR certified here. It's like CPR, but for suicide prevention.
Suicide is serious. It can be a scary and nerve-wracking thing to experience, whether you're the one considering it or the one working to prevent it. Remember that suicide is one of the top preventable causes of death; you are not powerless to stop a suicide from happening.