When someone we love is feeling suicidal, it often creates a lot of distress for us as well. We may worry about what to say, saying the wrong thing, or making things worse. We may feel incredibly uncomfortable talking about the topic and attempt to divert the conversation onto another topic or make light of what our loved one is trying to express. If we feel really uncomfortable sitting with our loved one and listening to what they are trying to express, we may find ourselves too quickly moving into all the reasons they have to live.
All these reactions are normal and have been experienced and done by many people who really want to be supportive.
Suicide and suicidal ideation are not topics that have traditionally been open for discussion and although this is changing, many of us have not received education, even informal education, on how to address suicide properly.
Talking about suicide is often scary for people, it bumps them up against their owns fears, such as openly facing and addressing the factors leading to suicidal thoughts, the possibility of losing their loved one to suicide, or having to look at their own burdens, life hardships, or even their own mortality.
Even with all our fears that may arise when this topic surfaces, please know that people who are feeling suicidal usually just want to know that someone cares, that someone is willing to listen, and that someone is willing to try and understand what they are going through. They are also hoping that they will not be judged or criticized for feeling suicidal and they usually want to, but may not know how to, reach out and connect with someone.
So really, your job as a support person is to simply let your loved one know that even if you do not know all the answers, you care about them and you are willing to try and understand what they are going through. Let them know that you are open to talking about suicide so they do not feel discouraged from talking about it.
Talking about suicide is so important to reducing the risk of it. Don’t worry if you say the wrong thing, simply correct it by saying something like, “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right. I’m just scared and I really want to say the right thing. Please know that I am trying and it’s because I care about you.”
What Do I Actually Say to be Supportive?
Through my work as a psychologist, I find that clients feel much more prepared when they know what they can say, or have a script of sorts to follow from. Below, I have provided some examples that you can use to work from. Very likely, these examples may need to be tweaked a bit to ensure they fit for your specific situation and the people involved.
I'm worried but I'm Not Sure if They are Suicidal
In this case, you can say something similar to the following:
“I have noticed that you look more down lately. That you have withdrawn, you’re not going to work anymore, and that you are drinking a lot. I am worried about you and I am beginning to get worried that you may want to hurt yourself somehow. Are you feeling suicidal at all?”
“We all have down times and it seems that you are going through one of those times right now. This may not be happening for you, but if you ever feel suicidal or like you want to hurt yourself, please know that I will listen and I am open to talking about it…even if I might not know all the best advice or answers.”
“I’m worried about you and I want to ask if you are feeling suicidal? If you are, please tell me so that we can work on this together.”
After some disclosure of difficulties, you may ask:
“That’s a lot to be dealing with, has it gotten bad enough that you are thinking about suicide?”
“Thank you for letting me know you are feeling suicidal. Can you please let me know how you would like me to support you? I have some ideas, such as getting out for walks, hanging out, just being busy with household tasks together, or letting you be alone at times, but you may have a better idea of what would work better for you.”
What if they Deny Suicidal Ideation?
If, by chance, the person you are concerned about denies that they are feeling suicidal or acts insulted or confused that you would ask such a question, then just simply say, “I’m sorry if I offended you or said something wrong, I just want to make sure this is not a concern.”
The biggest benefit by asking is that your loved one will at least know that you are open to the topic and willing to discuss it if they need too. Personally, I would rather error on the side of caution and possible insult than to not ask at all and have an attempt occur.
What if I Already Missed my Chance?
If you’re concerned about a situation or a conversation that has already occurred and you are regretting how you handled it, then the matter can still be addressed. Focus less on the perceived error and more on how you can repair the disconnect.
This can be done by saying something similar to the following:
“You told me the other day that you wanted to die. I wasn’t expecting that and was caught off guard. I wish I listened more and I wanted to say sorry about that. I would like to try again. Can you please tell me now, more about what you are going through?”
“I’m sorry for how I responded to what you said last week about wanting to die. I wish I handled it better. Thinking about you hurting yourself scares me and I really don’t know what to do to support you. I feel lost for words. Even if I don’t know what to advise, however, I am willing to listen to what is going on for you. I don’t want you to feel like you can’t talk to me. Since I also don’t think I know how to help you beyond listening, I would also like to help you get connected with someone who can.”
“You told me yesterday that you wanted to die. This is a topic that I have a really hard time dealing with. But, I don’t want you to distance yourself from me. So, would you be willing to go see someone with me? That way you can get the support you need and I can learn how to be a better support to you.”
Common Pitfall & Tips
When supporting someone who is experiencing suicidal ideation, try not to fall into the common trap of talking them out of it. When this occurs, people who are feeling suicidal often feel as though others do not understand them and that there is no point trying to explain more. This can increase the risk of them withdrawing further.
Not talking them out of suicide, however, does not mean you condone it. You can be clear that you do not agree with suicide being an option, but that you will try to understand what has lead them to feel suicidal or that you will help them stay safe until proper help can be out into place.
Generally, it is only after you have a good understanding about what has led someone to feel suicidal that you can begin to talk about why are they still living and what keeps them here. This is why simply listening can be so helpful. You have to explore the dark before you can begin leading your loved one towards exploring the light.
If, however, your loved does not really know why they are feeling suicidal or they do not want to share the reasons, then leave the exploration of these reasons to a professional. Just respect their privacy and their need to slowly share by being willing to listen to what they do share and by checking in with them.
As a therapist, I often say to my clients who are feeling suicidal,
“Thank you for sharing this concern with me. I will let you know, however, that I am not going to sit here and try to talk you out of it. I don’t agree that suicide is an option, but I won’t be trying to talk you out of it. Instead, we will be using our time to explore what has led you to feel suicidal and what other options may be available to reduce the distress that you are experiencing. In this way, it is my hope that you will no longer feel suicidal and you will have other options available to address your distress.”
Finally, ensure that you are not handling this situation on your own and connect with local community resources so you can get the support you need to support your loved one. Even if your loved one is not willing to seek professional support or go with you to see someone, you can still go yourself. Many times, this will help to reduce your own stress levels and help you become more prepared to be supportive while respecting your own limits.
Aside from services through PsychSolutions (780-710-9567), other community resources that are available in the local Edmonton area are:
Distress Line: 780-482-HELP (4357) / 1-800-232-7288 if outside of the greater Edmonton region.
Seniors’ Abuse Helpline: 780-454-8888
Suicide Grief Support Program: 780-732-6654
211 Alberta – Edmonton and Area: Dial 2-1-1 or 780-482-4636 if outside of the City of Edmonton, Strathcona County, Leduc County or Parkland County or you can search for services yourself online, by visiting www.ab.211.ca for a comprehensive list of services.
Wellness Network: 780-488-0851 or visit online at www.wellnessnetworkedmonton.com