Help for Others
Suicide: Prevention Strategies
How to offer help to others
Suicide is a serious and preventable public health problem that can have lasting harmful effects on individuals, families, and communities. While the causes of suicide vary, suicide prevention strategies share two goals: to reduce factors that increase risk and to increase factors that promote resilience or coping. Prevention requires a comprehensive approach that occurs at all levels of society—from the individual, family, and community levels to the broader social environment. Effective prevention strategies are needed to promote awareness of suicide, while also promoting prevention, resilience, and a commitment to social change.
Stigma associated with mental illnesses can prevent people from getting help. Your willingness to talk about mental or emotional issues and suicide with a friend, family member, or co-worker can be the first step in getting them help and preventing suicide.
If you are concerned about a friend who may be in emotional crisis or thinking of suicide, don’t hesitate to reach out. If you think someone is thinking about suicide, assume you are the only one who will reach out. Suicide is complicated and tragic, but it can be preventable. Knowing the warning signs for suicide and how to get help can help save lives.
Steps for Helping Someone in Emotional Pain
Suicide preparedness is one of the best ways to ensure you’ll be ready to help a friend who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. Commit to learning the warning signs of suicide. Learn about resources in your community including mental health services. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is also a great resource to memorize and use if you are concerned about a friend. The phone number for the Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255(TALK).
If You See the Warning Signs of Suicide…
You can begin by asking questions and being open-minded. Talking about it without being met by judgment or accusation might be what the person requires to set them on a path to getting the help they need.
Don’t minimize problems or shame a person into changing their mind.
Take them seriously. Listen to them and believe them. Trying to convince the person that what they are feeling is not that bad or that they have everything to live for may only increase their feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Let them know that help is available, that they are important, and that life can get better.
Begin a dialogue by asking questions. Suicidal thoughts are common and your willingness to talk about it in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way can be the help a person needs to seek professional help. Asking these questions will help you to determine if your friend or family member is in immediate danger, and get help if needed. A suicidal person should see a doctor or mental health professional immediately. Calling 911 or going to a hospital emergency room are also good options to prevent a tragic suicide attempt or death. Calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contacting the Crisis Text Line at 741741 are also resources for you or the person you care about. Remember, always take thoughts of or plans for suicide seriously. Have this talk in private so they feel free to be open with you.
Listen carefully and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling. Research suggests acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts.
• “Are you thinking of hurting yourself or taking your own life?” It’s not an easy question but studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts. Express your concern about what you are observing in their behavior. Tell them you care about them. Listen attentively and non-judgmentally.
• “Have you thought about when you would do it (today, tomorrow, next week)?” You should discern if you need to contact 911 based on the immediacy of their plans. Stay calm and reflect back to them what they tell you. Encourage them to seek treatment or to contact their doctor or therapist.
• “Have you thought about what method you would use?” This question will help you devise a safety plan for them and help them clear their environment of potential suicide means. Let them know they are not alone and that you are really listening to them.
Avoid debating the value of life, minimizing their problems or giving advice. Stay with them and help them consider their next step. Escort them to mental health services or an emergency room if you or they feel it is necessary.
Staying in touch after a crisis or after being discharged from care can make a difference. Studies have shown the number of suicide deaths goes down when someone follows up with the at-risk person.
Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number in your phone so it’s there when you need it: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You may contact them together during your talk. You can also help make a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional. Never keep a plan for suicide a secret. Don’t worry about risking a friendship if you truly feel a life is in danger. You have bigger things to worry about if someone’s life might be in danger. It is better to lose a relationship from violating a confidence than it is to go to a funeral.
Don’t try to minimize problems or shame a person into changing their mind. Your opinion of a person’s situation is irrelevant. Trying to convince a person suffering with suicidal thoughts that their situation is not that bad, or that they have everything to live for may only increase their feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Reassure them that help is available, that what they are experiencing is treatable, and that suicidal feelings are temporary.
Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention. While this is not always easy, asking if the at-risk person has a plan and removing or disabling the lethal means can make a difference.
If you feel the person isn’t in immediate danger, acknowledge the pain is legitimate and offer to work together to get help. Make sure you follow through. This is one instance where you must be tenacious in your follow-up. Help find a doctor or a mental health professional, participate in making the first phone call, or go along to the first appointment. If you’re in a position to help, don’t assume that your persistence is unwanted or intrusive. Risking your feelings to help save a life is a risk worth taking.
Help your loved one create a safety plan
Having a safety plan in place during a time of emotional vulnerability is one way to help a loved one manage their thoughts and feelings. It can assist them in finding help quickly. A template for a Safety Plan, including important details to consider, can be found on this site.
The recovery process is different for everyone. Recovery usually extends long beyond hospitalization, and will involve support from professionals, as well as friends and family. The first six months after a hospitalization are especially critical to the suicide attempt survivor’s recovery, and the risk for suicide remains elevated for the entire first year.
One of the most powerful gifts you can provide at this time is your presence. Even when you don’t know what to say, just be there with them. For the first few weeks, they may need you very close. Face to face is best, but there are so many ways to connect with technology – skype, phone, text, social media.
During their crisis, your loved one may have perceived themselves as being completely alone, or a burden on you and the others who love them.
Talk openly with your loved one. Ask them what they need, and help them create a good plan for their recovery.
Protective Factors for Suicide
Protective factors buffer individuals from suicidal thoughts and behavior. To date, protective factors have not been studied as extensively or rigorously as risk factors. Identifying and understanding protective factors are, however, equally as important as researching risk factors.
• Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
• Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help seeking
• Family and community support (connectedness)
• Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
• Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
• Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage but not demonize suicide and support instincts for self-preservation
Responding to Suicide Survivors
Tell the survivor you are sorry for his or her loss.
A simple heartfelt, “I am sorry for your loss,” is an appropriate response. Do not make statements such as, “You’re young, you’ll marry again.” Or, “At least you have other children.” Or, “I know how you feel.” These are not comforting statements.
Understand that the survivor may be experiencing an overwhelming number of complicated emotions.
Shock, anger, bewilderment, disbelief, yearning, anxiety, depression, sorrow and stress are emotions expressed by some but not all suicide survivors.
Remember that grief is an intensely individualistic journey.
Although you may have experienced grief in your life, suicide related grief is complex. Suicide is a death like no other and survivors are left to struggle with a pain like no other. You do not know how the survivor is feeling.
If the survivor wishes to talk, be available. Listening can be the most comforting thing you can do for a suicide survivor.
Be aware of the suicide survivor grief support groups in your community.
Many survivors have found it very helpful to attend a suicide survivor support group where they can exchange support, information and encouragement. They need to know they are not alone. These groups are specific to grief from suicide.
Suicide and the Stigma.
Survivors must wade through both the emotional devastation and the stigma that accompanies a suicide death. Do not judge. Be compassionate and offer support just like with any death. Think of suicide as the tragic result of an illness, a most misunderstood illness. You can help erase stigma by your reaction to this tragic death.
What do I tell my children?
If you are the parent or guardian of minor children, it is up to you to determine whether to tell your children the truth about what happened. Please do bear in mind that people talk, and while you may not (yet) wish to share the nature of your loved one’s death with your children, it’s very possible that they will overhear adults discussing or speculating about the nature of the death.
• When explaining the suicide to a child or adolescent, provide truthful information, encourage questions, and offer loving reassurance.
• Reassure children that they are not responsible, and that nothing they said or did caused anyone else to take their life.
• Be prepared to talk about the suicide multiple times during the first days and weeks, and later throughout the child’s life.