First off, if you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, please find help. In the Charlottesville/Albemarle area? Call 434.230.9704. Highly trained volunteers staff this regional crisis call center 24/7/365 and provide:
- An empathic person to talk to
- Safety planning for people having suicidal thoughts
- Info on how to help a suicidal friend or loved one
- Referrals to local mental health and community resources
Pressing 1 after dialing 988 connects you with Veterans Crisis Line for veterans, service members, and National Guard and Reserve members. You can also text 838255.
If you’re worried about a loved one or they tell you they’re having suicidal thoughts, it can be hard to know what to do. You may not know what to say or fear making things worse. Or it can bring up your own strong emotions.
Are You Or a Loved One in Crisis?
Trained volunteers at the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can help 24/7/365.
Getting help from a mental health professional will likely be an important part of the person’s healing. However, “you don’t have to be a mental health professional to be effective in making someone feel like there’s people who care and value them,” says UVA Health clinical psychologist Joey Tan, PhD.
Your support in a moment of crisis can help save your loved one’s life.
Read on to learn how to help a suicidal friend or loved one.
5 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Suicidal
Don’t Say: Look on the Bright Side
Why: If they could, they would. It’s like telling someone with a broken leg to walk it off. Someone in a mental health crisis needs professional medical help, just like someone having a physical health emergency.
You may say “look on the bright side” to try to help the person reframe. Reframing means noticing thoughts that automatically pop up in stressful situations but are unhelpful, and finding and replacing them with helpful thoughts. It can be an important coping skill, says UVA Health clinical psychologist Joey Tan, PhD.
However, reframing works best when led by the person themselves, “not someone else telling them what to think,” Tan warns.
Don’t Say: Lots of People Have It Worse
Why: Life isn’t the “suffering Olympics” and the person who has it worst doesn’t get a prize. Plus, with nearly 8 billion people on the planet, pretty much everyone has it better or worse than someone else.
It’s impossible to really know “how bad” someone has it, and it doesn’t matter anyway. A complex combination of factors come together to determine a person’s mental health. These include biology, physical health, and past and present experiences. Even if someone’s life looks ok the surface, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a mental health crisis.
Saying this might “dismiss someone’s own experience of emotional pain,” Tan explains. Instead, he recommends meeting the person where they are. “That starts with acknowledging that someone’s own suffering is valid.”
Don’t Say: You Just Want Attention
Why: Yes, they want attention. And that’s good. It means they haven’t made up their mind about dying. At least part of them wants help.
The word “just” implies they’re exaggerating because they want sympathy. However, most people don’t want to tell others they’re having suicidal thoughts. They may be ashamed of their feelings. This response can increase their feelings of shame, Tan explains.
A person with suicidal thoughts may believe they are a burden or otherwise bad for the people in their lives. This response can “heighten the sense that the person is having a negative effect on others, which can increase the risk in the situation,” Tan says.
Don’t Say: That’s Selfish
Why: It’s obvious to you how much it would hurt everyone who cares about the person to lose them. So you might assume the person knows how much their death would hurt others and doesn’t care. And that can feel selfish.
But people who are suicidal often believe the opposite. They think they’re a burden or that their death would have little impact. Or they feel they don’t deserve to live. Telling someone they’re selfish could strengthen their belief that others would be better off if they weren’t here.
Don’t Say (or Do): Nothing
Why: Stigma and fear can keep people from sharing suicidal thoughts. If you’re concerned about someone, doing something could save their life. Also, doing something shows you care, and people who are suicidal often believe no one really cares.
If You’re Worried, Check In
Worried about someone, but they haven’t told you they’re in crisis? Ask how they are.
You may not know what to say or fear saying something will be awkward or upsetting. If you’re unsure, you can simply start with, “I noticed you seem down lately. How are you doing?” Even if they don’t open up right then, they’ll know you’re someone they can come to.
You can also ask, “are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Don’t worry; you’re not going to “put the thought in their head.”
“Some people think that asking about suicidal thoughts will make someone more likely to act on them, but research does not support this,” explains UVA Health clinical psychologist J. Kim Penberthy, PhD.
Research shows asking about suicidal thoughts reduced rather than increased the thoughts, according to a 2014 review of the published literature.
How to Help a Suicidal Friend: What to Do
Check out these tips on how to help a suicidal friend or loved one.
Without interrupting or passing judgement. “Don’t shut them down or try to redirect,” suggests Penberthy. Having someone to talk to can help them feel less alone.
Tan recommends resisting any urge to offer solutions “before we’ve taken the time to listen and communicate our caring.”
“It’s hard for someone to engage in problem-solving if they don’t feel like they’ve been heard and understood first,” he explains.
Thank Them for Sharing
Tell them you understand how difficult it was for them to share their feelings and you’re glad they did.
“Check to make sure they are safe, ask permission to provide support, and encourage them to reach out for help,” Penberthy says.
Offer to call or text 988 with them. The counselors who staff the line are trained to assess how the person is doing and connect them to the help they need. Or offer to take them to the nearest emergency department, if they’re in immediate danger.
Keep Showing Up
“Make sure and follow up after the initial suicidal thoughts,” Penberthy recommends. Reaching out can be difficult. Make it easier by checking in with them instead.