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How to Reach Out to Someone Who is Struggling with Suicidal Thoughts

How to Reach Out to Someone Who is Struggling with Suicidal Thoughts

By Pam Dewey • suicide, suicidal thoughts, suicide ideation, contemplating suicide, self harm, suicide prevention, preventing suicide, thinking about suicide • September 09, 2021

You likely know someone who has struggled with depression, and you may also know someone who has considered suicide, whether or not you’re aware of it. According to the CDC, “In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide.”

While thinking about suicide isn’t the same as acting on it, the decision to attempt suicide is often made quickly, and the consequences can be permanent. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Up to 50% of people who attempt suicide make the decision to do so within minutes to an hour before they act.” The Harvard School of Public Health quotes a study that found for survivors of suicide attempts, “one in four deliberated for less than 5 minutes.”

The good news is experts also believe that suicide is the most preventable kind of death, and almost any action can help prevent suicide.

Watch for these signs of contemplating suicide

There are certain signs that someone might be considering suicide. According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), here are some things to watch out for:

  • Speaking about wanting to die or kill themselves
  • Saying that they’re a burden to others
  • Stating they feel hopeless or don’t have a purpose
  • Speaking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Searching for ways to kill themselves
  • Increasing their use of drugs or alcohol
  • Sleeping way more or less than usual
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Acting out in reckless ways
  • Becoming easily angry or anxious
  • Extreme mood swings

If you notice these signs in someone, you should reach out to that person. NAMI offers suicide prevention classes to the community, which use three key steps: question, persuade and refer. You can sign up for one of these NAMI classes here. Or read more about it below.

Question

The first step when encountering someone you suspect may be contemplating suicide is to ask them directly about it. With friends or loved ones, you might say, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” It’s best to talk to them in a private location, so they feel comfortable talking. It’s also important to be persistent if they dodge the question.

If you encounter a stranger you’re concerned about, you might try a less direct approach. First, introduce yourself. Then you can say, “Have you been unhappy lately?” Then work your way up to, “I’m worried about you, and I wonder if you’re thinking about suicide?”

Asking the question may feel awkward, but remember, you’re trying to prevent them from acting on potential suicidal feelings.

Persuade

The second step is trying to persuade an individual to change their mind. Start by listening to them and giving them your full attention. You SHOULDN’T SAY, “You have so much to live for.” This just makes them feel guilty and isn’t helpful. Instead, ask about their lives. You might say, “Do you kids? Or do you have pets?” Then ask about their kids or pets. Find a way to connect with them and talk about things that are important in their lives. Try to offer them hope in any form.

You could say, “I’m sorry things are this hard,” or “You can have suicidal thoughts, but you don’t have to act on them.”

Refer

The third step is to try to refer an individual for help. If they push back and continue their negative thinking, try putting it on yourself. Say, “It would make me feel better, if I could come stay with you.” You can also ask who you can call to support them because that includes them in the decision.

Or, if you don’t know them well, you might say, “I’m not a professional, but let’s talk to someone who is.” Each county in Minnesota has a mental health crisis team. You can contact them or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Consider saving these numbers in your phone, so these will be readily accessible in a crisis.

However, if the individual has a gun or another weapon, you must call the police. When you do, say, “This is a mental health emergency. Please send a crisis intervention team (CIT) officer.” According to NAMI, CIT programs “train police officers to handle and respond safely to psychiatric crisis calls,” so these officers will be better equipped to handle the situation and keep your loved one safe.

You can help someone contemplating suicide by noticing the signs, asking them if they’re considering suicide, persuading them to reconsider and then referring to them to crisis mental health resources.

Resources