How To Help Someone Who is Having Suicidal Thoughts
December 4, 2014
Hope: If you're going through hell, keep going. -Winston ChurchillOriginal Photo Credit: Pol Sifter

Note: the author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 40,000 Americans die due to suicide every year, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the nation. In 2012, the World Health Organization reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds, with the highest suicide rate being among men over 85 years old. Suicide can affect millions of people around the world: the individuals who attempt to or succeed at taking their life; the loved ones who endure the pain and grief of having lost someone to suicide; and everybody else that supports someone dear to them who is at high-risk of suicide.  

Recently, I learned that someone close to me was having suicidal thoughts. Over the years, as I watched him hit rock bottom a few times, I often felt that I was a bystander, observing him from a distance and unable to really offer guidance. Immediately after I heard the news, the sadness of his situation and life circumstances overwhelmed me. I thought about his feelings of hopelessness, leading him to the conclusion that death would be a better alternative than life. After the initial wave of emotion, I was able to more clearly assess the situation and consider how I could offer my support. While every situation is different and dealing with a person having suicidal thoughts is incredibly challenging and delicate, here are a few steps I took to help my friend.

Initiate communication with the person

My friend did not tell me directly about his suicidal thoughts, so I was worried about contacting him directly and broaching the topic. However, I had faith in our relationship and I knew that he would eventually open up to me. Because I live in a different city, I could not meet with him in person. Instead, I texted and called, asking general questions and checking in regularly. While initially he seemed to want to push me away, he started reaching out to me on his own and I knew that he would eventually share his current challenges with me.

Communicate with others in the person’s network

Since I was not in the same city as my friend, I had to rely on others who were in close proximity and could go to my friend’s house to check in. I also reached out to these people, who could have a better understanding of the situation and the immediate circumstances leading to the suicidal thoughts. This helped me understand my friend’s level of risk of suicide and the gravity of the situation. Communicating with people who were close by also allowed me to create a supportive network who could easily help if he started on a downward spiral.

Contact a professional or call a hotline

I also contacted trained professionals and phoned a suicide hotline to get professional input. Making these calls helped ease my concerns that I was doing all that was possible to help my friend. The professionals I spoke to also reiterated that if at any point I felt that the person seemed to be getting worse, that we should call the police immediately or have someone bring him to the ER to get evaluated.

Reassure the person that you care

Remembering that my friend was going through a difficult time was of the utmost importance during this period. It is painful to watch someone struggling so much, but I hand to continue to remind my friend that I cared about him and I was there to support him. I tried to help him to understand that other people were there as well, but he also had to make necessary steps to create changes. While the road ahead might still be a little bumpy, I believe that he does feel more hopeful about life, not necessarily because of the steps that I took, but because he saw how his network galvanized to support him. When a person is in a desperate situation, little actions can go a very long way.

It was incredibly painful for me to watch my close friend grapple with suicidal thoughts.  However, as others reminded me, it is important to remember that we are not responsible for another person’s feelings. There are many factors, including drug use and depression, that can lead to higher risk of suicide. However, oftentimes, a mention of suicide can be a call for help and individuals can be guided to the support they need. According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), at least 80% of individuals who seek treatment for depression are treated successfully. Sometimes, we just have to help people see a glimmer of hope.

Here are other resources on suicide that might be helpful if you are dealing with a person who might be suicidal:

  1. Helping Someone Who is Suicidal: put together a very useful guide with a number of resources and references for suicide prevention.
  2. Suicide in America: Frequently Asked Questions: The National Institute of Mental Health put together a useful guide on suicide in America that answers commonly asked questions about suicide.
  3. How to Handle a Call from a Suicidal Person: If someone calls you and tells you they are having suicidal thoughts, you might be at a loss of what to do. This ten point guide provides tips on how to speak to a person in crisis, helping you to understand the need to listen carefully and calmly and also be empathetic.
  4. Waking Up, Alive: This powerful book written by Richard A. Heckler, PhD details the steps and stages that a person negotiates after a suicide attempt. Based on interviews with with individuals across the U.S., the book also provides insight on how individuals reclaimed lives of happiness, meaning, and satisfaction.
  5. Books for Survivors: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention compiled an extensive list of books that can help survivors of suicide loss.

  1. Thank you for this post. A friend’s family member recently committed suicide and she is struggling with a lot of feelings about how little support his family provided him when he was crying out for help. Little actions do go a long way. Thank you for these clear and simple steps that can and DO save people’s lives.

  2. Here is another resource that readers may find useful, from Wake Forest University’s counseling program:

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