How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal

I’ve attempted suicide three times.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone in this distinction.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide every year – that’s one person every 40 seconds. Suicide accounted for 1.4% of all deaths worldwide in 2016, making it the 18th leading cause of death Sadly, it was the leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds globally. Every day, family members, partners, friends, and co-workers are impacted forever by the pain of suicide.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month with the goal of promoting resources and awareness around suicide prevention, how you can help others and how to talk about suicide without increasing the risk of harm.

So, let’s talk about it.

How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal

My Story

I’ve attempted suicide three times.

The first time I was a junior in high school. After a break up with my boyfriend, which was huge in my teenage world, I swallowed a bottle of aspirin and had my stomach pumped in the ER.

Fast forward two decades. I had now been married to the same boyfriend for 16 years and was a stay-at-home mother of two small sons. When the husband informed me that he wanted a divorce, I sped off in my minivan, bought a six-pack of wine coolers, an assortment of over-the-counter pills, and a couple of bottles of the night-time-so-you-can-rest medicine. Parking the van in a remote corner of a 24-hour store parking lot, I downed the toxic combination and stretched out on the back seat to die.

Hours later, I woke up in a panicked stupor and tried to drive home but proceeded to plow over a curb where I came to a stop, hung out of the door throwing up green goo, and passed out on the grass. Someone driving by called 911, and after being rushed to the ER and having my stomach pumped again, I suffered no physical consequences. I did spend a couple of days in the psych ward of the hospital.

The last time was more serious — much more.

After the end of the marriage in an ugly parting that made Divorce Court look civil, and years of wrong turns, things not working out, and being flat-out disgusted with life, I attempted suicide again in June of 2007, by swallowing over 90 pills. Because I wasn’t found early enough, my stomach wasn’t pumped this time, and the drugs went all the way through my system wreaking destruction.

After a week in a coma, I woke up with a serious brain injury to a very different world. Immediately following the attempt, the ex-husband sued me for custody of our sons, won, and promptly moved out-of-state with them.

At first, I was painfully embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I had tried to kill myself, had my children taken away, and had mental health issues. However, during the first year, I began to realize that the shame was like a black cloud I was always willingly dragging around over my own head. I could step out from under it at any time.

If I talked about the gasp-worthy events of my life openly and refused to inflict any shame on myself, there was none.

The shame only existed if I imposed it on myself.

Over the years, I’ve healed tremendously both emotionally and physically and continued talking and writing about depression, suicide, and mental health.  In fact, I have written a memoir, Sex, Suicide, and Serotonin. You can read an excerpt from the book detailing my suicide attempt here.

Over the last decade, I’ve seen positive change around touchy mental health subjects as people have become more willing to talk about their experiences and less judgmental of others. However, I also see that we still have a long way to go every day. When I share my experiences, I often get “me too” stories from people relaying that they have found themselves in similar dark places at some point in their lives.

By sharing our stories, we can take away some of the shame and help each other begin to accept ourselves and start to heal.

How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal

You Can Help Prevent Suicide

The first thing you need to do if someone is suicidal is to calmly assess the situation. If there is any immediate danger to the suicidal person or anyone else call 911 or take the person to a hospital emergency room if they’re cooperative. The suicidal person might initially be angry with you for taking drastic action but remember, it’s much better for them to be alive to be mad than the alternative.

What to Do If Someone is Suicidal

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline lists these dos and don’ts when dealing with a suicidal person:

Do:

  • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen. Allow them to express their feelings without judgment.
  • Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether their feelings are valid. Now is not the time to give a lecture on the value of life or how much worse things could be.
  • Get involved. Be available. Show interest and support. Really listen more than you talk.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available and help them take action.
  • Remove any means they might have to complete suicide, such as guns or pills.
  • Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

Don’t:

  • Dare the person to do it.
  • Act shocked. This puts distance between the two of you.
  • Don’t ask why. This encourages defensiveness
  • Offer sympathy. Do offer support and empathy.
  • Be sworn to secrecy.

What You Can Say

There is an old belief that talking about suicide encourages it or plants the idea.

That’s just not true.

Not talking about mental health issues only serves to increase feelings of shame and isolation. As suggested above, you want to address the issue openly and directly without judgment to assess their suicidal risk. Be supportive, encouraging, and empathetic without being glib or full of empty platitudes.

I know, personally, when I attempted to end my life, I was just plain terrified of the circumstances in my life at that time and emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. What I would have found helpful is for someone to say:

We will figure this out together.

I’ll be here with you every step of the way.

This is for now not forever.

The only thing suicide does is make sure nothing ever gets better.”

What Has Helped Others

Every person is different and every situation is different. I polled my Best Brain Possible Facebook page, and here’s what some people said they would like to hear or what has helped them when they felt suicidal:

Right before I attempted suicide, I was convinced that my reality was the only one, and that my best option was to end my life. I firmly believed that there was no way out of my pain, and that my life was hopeless and helpless. I wish someone would have talked to me about my huge potential and abilities, and how capable I was to get healthier and see all the other realities and possibilities available to me. Even though my reality was *real*, that didn’t mean a happier and healthier one wasn’t, too.” ~ Corrie Brundage – Sheroes

I wished someone said to me: ‘You can survive without your abusive parents… you can make it in the world… you can do it… you can do wonderful things with your life… you don’t need your mother and father… you need your own willingness, desire, strength, and love for yourself to make great things happen.'” ~ Cora Farrell

On one of my worst days, a small, still voice inside said: ‘Find something to be grateful for.’ I walked out the door, about to start my day, and I saw the grass. I was grateful for each blade of grass. I’ve never forgotten that.” ~ Francie Gannon

Let’s move away and start over.” ~ Barry Faust

Even if you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to have hope that it is there.” ~ Nicole Withers

 What if you’re dead, and it’s not any better?” ~ Erin Gavin

More Thoughts

One person wrote these words in response to someone who commented that their death wouldn’t make a difference. I thought they were beautiful.

So, you think you don’t have an impact?

Think of this: there is someone smiling thinking of a joke you told him. There are pictures of you and others that are someone’s best memories. There is someone sinking into a book you recommended. There is someone out there that you made his day by a random act of kindness. There are teachers who are telling stories about how wild or how calm and smart you were when your were younger. There is someone missing your sweet kisses and your soft touch. There is someone out there who craves for your hug. There is someone enjoying his favorite food you once cooked for him.

There are footsteps everywhere you once were. You are connected to everyone you’ve ever met. For sure, darling, you have left memories, and you have an impact on life. You wrote a story. And this is not the ending. This is just a stormy day which will end and the sun will shine again. You have made it through these days before and you will again. ~ Steffi Sehani

For more suggestions on what to say, read this helpful article How to Talk to a Suicidal Person.

Resources

When dealing with a suicidal person, don’t try to go it alone. Get help for yourself and the other person.

Here are 10 Things You Need To Know About Suicide From A Survivor.

Here’s further reading:

Here’s a toolkit you can download for helping someone at risk of suicide.

In the United States:

Worldwide:

8 Comments

  1. Thank you Debbie.
    As a parent watching catastrophe envelope a son, you initially feel helpless as to what to do. He is an adult and he needs to learn to take care of himself – were the very first thoughts that pop into your head. But that thinking is quickly replaced by fear – of everything that he might do. It is so difficult to know next steps. Unfortunately, you gain experience when you have a child who is mentally ill. It is an impossible situation – you never know if you are doing the right thing.
    Your article is so reassuring. I found myself in your words doing what I needed to do. Removing all of the personal feelings about ‘what did I do wrong’ and ‘how could my child even be thinking about this’ is critical because it isn’t about me. Thank you for positive action steps to take. They clear the thinking process.
    Your work is valuable Debbie.
    Thank you.

    • Pat,
      Thank you for your kind words and for inspiring this post. It’s difficult and painful to watch our children hurt and hard to know how to help at times. I’m right there with you. All this info helps me as well! 🙂

  2. I was in a traumatic situation for most of the past year, and I can think of the best and worst things that people have said to me. The worst was someone’s response to my telling her that I was having physical symptoms relating to the situation. She said, “Oh, you should go get medication!” While many people have chemical imbalances and benefit from medication, that is a medical issue that is best left to my doctor and therapist. And in the moment, I felt like she was minimizing the actual trauma that I was going through.

    I only told one person that I was suicidal at that time, and she was in an advocate role, as well as a good friend. We were out drinking wine and venting, and right before we left, I told her I was having a hard time not crashing my car into an overpass on the way to my situation everyday. She looked completely shocked, and said, “It’s just a job. Think of your daughter.” Nothing profound, but it was the caring between the words that mattered. In a situation where nobody was on my side, one person cared.

    And with her help, I eventually got out of the situation.

    • Bethany,

      I’m glad you spoke up and trusted your friend to help you. Every situation is different, and the response needed in every is going to be different. I’m glad it was what you needed at the time. 🙂

  3. Wonderful information here, Debbie. Suicide is devastating for families and your article has shone a light on the statistics around suicide that we should all be aware of. I so appreciate you sharing your story in an effort to help others. Knowing the signs and what to look for can be life-saving.

  4. Wow this is a difficult one to tackle Debbie…kudos to you for sharing your story and giving us all relevant ways that we can support someone who is finding life so incredibly difficult that they feel it’s best not to stay.

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