Statistics reveal that in the US approximately 121 suicides occur per day, more than 40,000 people complete suicide per year, and nearly one million people attempt suicide each year. Family, friends, and acquaintances can play a key role in suicide prevention by being alert for warning signs and taking action to help a person who is struggling.
If you are unsure about what to do, mental health professionals at the WVU Medicine Chestnut Ridge Center can be of assistance. WVU Medicine psychiatrist Dilip Chandran, MD, offers tips about what you can do to help someone at risk of suicide in recognition of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
Look for warning signs.
The warning signs of suicidal thoughts may be subtle and differ for each person. Pay attention to any mention of the person feeling like a burden or feeling trapped. Changes in their behavior may occur such as increasing use of alcohol or drugs; drastic mood changes; difficulty sleeping or oversleeping; withdrawing from friends, family, and activities they enjoy; acting recklessly or aggressively; visiting or calling people to say goodbye; or giving away prized possessions.
If someone talks about wanting to hurt or kill themselves, threatens to hurt or kill themselves, or talks about looking for a method to kill themselves, do not leave them alone if possible and get them immediate help or guidance by contacting a mental health professional, calling a suicide prevention hotline, or texting the crisis text line.
Start the conversation.
It’s better to address the possibility of suicide instead of being scared of saying the wrong thing and doing nothing. Asking someone about suicide will not put the idea in their head or cause suicide; if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, chances are they have not been feeling well for a while. If you notice any possible warning signs, talk to the person, remind them that they are loved and valuable, and aim to make them feel connected to someone.
A person may find it difficult to tell others they’re having suicidal thoughts because they’re feeling isolated or disconnected from other people. Start the conversation off with something like: “I’m concerned about you, and I’ve noticed that you seem a little down lately. Could we talk about that? I want to help, and I care about you.”
Listen with compassion.
Sometimes, we do not give our full attention to what someone else is saying or we cut the conversation off to address our point of view. Listening with compassion and without judgment is one of the best ways you can offer support to someone who is depressed. Let the person tell you how they are feeling, and ask what you can do to help. Please do not promise to keep it a secret if they reveal that they’re suicidal. Once the conversation has started, it’s completely appropriate to say, “You seem really down to me. Are you to the point where you don’t want to live anymore? Have you thought about ending your life?”
Avoid statements that dismiss their pain.
It is extremely important not to dismiss what someone is saying if you think they are suicidal. If they are discussing how terrible they feel about their life, try to avoid saying things like, “It’s not that bad. I’ve faced some difficult times, and I got through it.” Minimizing someone’s pain when they are depressed may cause them to stop communicating about how they’re feeling. Remind the person that you are present and you care with comforting statements such as: “I’m sorry that you’re having a difficult time. You’re important to me, and I want to do what I can to help you feel better.”
Know that psychiatric conditions are real.
Most people who consider suicide are experiencing symptoms that are linked to mental illness, preferably referred to as psychiatric conditions, which are real illnesses, just like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, etc. Psychiatric conditions are not weaknesses or character flaws, but very common and treatable illnesses. They may be life threatening if they’re not addressed with a mental health professional.
Help them get treatment.
After you’ve shown compassion and concern for the person, remind them that suicidal thoughts are treatable, and they can get better. Learning how to cope through talk therapy with a psychologist or counselor is necessary. A primary care physician can also be a valuable resource. The person may also need to see a psychiatrist for medication management of depression or another psychiatric condition.
Remind the person that other people have survived bouts with suicidal thoughts and recovered. Please do not wait it out to see if they get better. It is crucial that they receive an evaluation with a mental health professional right away if they have told you they’re suicidal. Go with them to the hospital or offer to sit with them while they call a suicide prevention hotline or text the crisis text line.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is free, confidential, and available 24/7. Text TALK to 741741 for 24/7 crisis support via text.