Raise your hand if suicide has personally touched your life. Has a friend, loved one or celebrity you admired died by suicide? Or perhaps suicidal ideation is something you grapple with yourself.
One of my first blog posts shared my personal observations about suicide. While that was an important post, it is time to take it a step further. It is not good enough to know there is a problem. You need a game plan of what to do when you are face to face with someone in crisis.
Before I launched my blog, I only trotted out my bipolar disorder diagnosis on designated days of the year when the spotlight was shining on mental illness and suicide. Once I shared a post about depression on Facebook, and a high school acquaintance reached out to me.
He asked if I struggled with depression and shared he had been dealing with an exceptionally rough patch of major depression for the past two years.
The person who reached out to me was extraordinary. He was kind and smart and left people better off than when he found them. He was a big deal, and I was not.
His position in life intimidated me, and my lack of accomplishments embarrassed me. If anyone else would have reached out to me, I would have started a genuine dialogue about the horrors of depression.
Because I felt small, I gave a small response. It was inadequate. I would even say it was glib. I said depression was “so hard” and I “hoped” he felt better soon. Seven months later he died by suicide.
And even though I intellectually know I was not responsible for his death, I cry every time I recall my inadequate response. His death woke me up. I found my voice and here I am.
The Saddest Statistic
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “The suicide rate for individuals with serious mental illness and mood disorders—such as depression or bipolar disorder—is 25 times that of the general public. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition.”
Mental illness is one factor that causes suicide, but you should also be on high alert if a friend or loved one exhibits entirely new behavior—especially in response to a painful event, loss or change.
Most people who die by suicide exhibit one or more warning signs. Knowing these warning signs can help save a life.
Suicide Warning Signs
- Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself.
- Looking for a way to kill oneself—such as searching online or buying a gun.
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Talking about being a burden to others.
- Increasing alcohol or drug use.
- Acting anxious or agitated.
- Behaving recklessly.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
- Displaying extreme mood swings.
- Losing interest in things or losing the ability to experience pleasure.
How to Save a Life
Don’t be naïve enough to believe no one in your circle of influence has ever been suicidal. Before I launched my blog, no one in my family and social circle had any idea how frequently I experience suicidal ideation.
You can’t help anyone in a crisis if you haven’t done your homework. It is one thing to educate yourself about how to handle a suicidal friend or loved one, but it is another thing to put that knowledge to the test.
What happens once you have identified a crisis? What steps do you take to intervene and help save a life?
Here are five steps to help someone who is suicidal:
1. Initiate a private conversation.
This is not a conversation you want to have at Starbucks. Invite your friend or loved one to a quiet place where they will feel safe enough to share their story. They need to know you care, and your feelings for them will not change because they are considering suicide.
2. Be an active listener.
This is the time to use your best listening skills. You will hear things that may shock you. That shock should never show on your face. You must remain calm.
Be an active listener, so you can ask follow-up questions to help gauge the urgency of the situation. It is important to remember not everyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is in imminent danger.
3. Once you have listened and assessed the situation, express your concerns.
This is not the time to shy away from a direct conversation about your friend or loved one’s suicidal ideation. Talking about suicide does not lead to suicide completion. They may even feel relieved that someone cared enough to ask the question.
Don’t pass judgment or guilt-trip them. You will have better results if you make it clear they have your complete understanding and support.
4. Encourage them to seek professional help.
It is great you are supporting your friend or loved one, but remember you are not a mental health professional. This is the time to suggest they seek professional help.
The first step toward help is the hardest. You can make that first step a little less daunting by helping your friend or loved one schedule an appointment and offering transportation to the appointment.
5. If the suicidal ideation escalates, take action.
Once you have concluded there is an emergency, here are your next steps:
- Stay with them (as long as you are not in danger).
- Help them remove lethal means.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Help is available 24/7.
- Bring them to the emergency room or call 911.
Do everything in your power to help your friend or love one get professional help, but remove yourself from any situation that endangers your personal safety.
I hope today’s post helps you internalize the importance of speaking up when you are face to face with someone who is contemplating suicide. It will not be an easy conversation, but it is a necessary one.
Please keep in mind that a suicidal crisis does not last forever. Your intervention can save a life. The person may be angry with you in that moment, but they may feel differently when the crisis is over, and they have received help.
If someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please use the following resources to help get them professional help:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—Available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
Crisis Text Line—Connect with a crisis counselor by texting “START” to 741-741. Available 24/7. If someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please use the following resources to help them get professional help.
Veterans Crisis Hotline—Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 to connect with caring, qualified responders with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many of them are Veterans themselves. You can also send a text to 838255.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides a wealth of information about how to handle a suicidal friend or loved one. Read their blog post that outlines the ways to start a real conversation (#RealConvo) about suicide with someone in crisis.