How to Support A Loved One Struggling With Suicidal Thoughts - Mental Health Help - Shorelines Care

Suicide is a serious and complex issue. While there isn’t a straightforward way to solve this nationwide mental health crisis, we can all do our part to support those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. 

As an often stigmatized and taboo topic, people are fearful of seeking help or sharing their experiences with suicide. Fortunately, there are an abundance of resources available to help those struggling and empower loved ones with knowledge and tools to help. 

If you believe that someone you love is at risk of suicide, you can do a few things to help.

Recognize the warning signs.

Signs that someone is at risk of suicide can include:

  • Talking or joking about death or wanting to end their lives
  • Gaining access to a firearm
  • Feelings of hopelessness, depression
  • Feeling ‘trapped’ or experiencing unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Reckless behavior
  • Appearing more irritable or anxious
  • Sleeping more than usual, or not getting enough sleep
  • Withdrawing or isolating from loved ones 
  • Extreme changes in mood 

The AFSP states that people who take their own lives often present a combination of these warning signs. Keep in mind that sometimes these signs may present in different ways to different people. You can help by knowing what to look out for and being willing to have an open, non-judgmental conversation with a loved one who is showing signs of suicidal thoughts. 

Reach out to them 

So what can you do when you notice someone struggling and fear that they may be contemplating suicide? Reach out to them, check in, and show them that you care, say suicide prevention experts.

People who are experiencing thoughts of suicide frequently feel trapped, alone, and like a burden to others. They’re not likely to reach out. However, this does not mean they aren’t willing to discuss their feelings and thoughts with a caring friend or family member.

Be direct.

Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide. Many people worry that mentioning suicide will put the thought of suicide in their heads or make them more likely to consider it. However, there is no research backing this idea.

In fact, experts say that discussing suicide directly and compassionately with someone at risk can be vital to preventing it. 

Asking direct questions such as “Have you ever had thoughts of suicide?” can start the conversation and show that you are there to listen and help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline lists on their website of do’s and don’ts for talking with someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

Assess the risk, but don’t panic: Suicidal feelings aren’t always an emergency.

So, what can you do if a loved one confides in you that they’ve been thinking about suicide? Suicide prevention experts say that most people who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts are not at a point yet where they are ready to act on them. 

But, how can you tell whether your loved one’s situation is an immediate crisis? Here are a few questions you can ask:

  • Are you thinking of killing yourself within the next few days?
  • If so, how strong are these urges?

Columbia University developed a risk assessment tool known as the Columbia Protocol, which is drawn from their research to help you with this conversation. It walks you through a few detailed questions to ask someone about their thoughts, means, and potential plans about suicide.

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, someone who has a plan is more likely to act upon it.

If it’s a crisis, stick around.

Ask whether or not they’ve got any means of harming themselves and work with them to remove these things from their environment. Research has shown that removing or limiting access to lethal means can significantly reduce suicide deaths.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline advises using this guide to the five action steps if someone you know is in immediate danger.

If you don’t feel able to help someone through a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Listen, support, and offer hope.

If the person isn’t at any immediate risk, it’s still important to listen without expressing judgment. Someone in this position is looking to be heard, acknowledged, and have their feelings validated. Rather than telling someone what to do, the next step is to offer hope and support. Let them know that you are available any time they need to talk or vent. Show that your opinion of them has not changed because of what they’ve confided in you.

Help your loved one create a safety plan.

If someone’s not at immediate risk of attempting suicide, it’s still a good time to consider prevention methods, such as when and where to seek help in an emergency and a few adaptive coping strategies.

Experts recommend that people develop a safety plan that details ways to cope and seek help when a crisis hits. Typically, an at-risk person and their therapist or mental health provider create it together, but a family member or friend can also help them achieve this.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention created a template for building a safety plan. It includes making a list of specific triggers, warning signs of an oncoming crisis, and things they can do to distract themselves during these times.

Help them connect with a professional.

After helping a loved one through a crisis moment or starting a conversation with them about suicide, you can help them develop a strategy to prevent future suicidal thoughts. Connect them with a licensed mental health professional who can work with them through the triggers and feelings that prompted the suicidal thoughts and build a path to a brighter future.


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