Practical steps if someone you know is suicidal
Disclaimer: This site does not replace or give professional medical or mental health advice.
Up to a third of young people will think about suicide, but whether or not they act on these thoughts will depend on how distorted their thinking has become due to stress or depression, and whether or not they can avoid being impulsive when in emotional pain.
Thoughts range from vaguely thinking about being dead to a wrong but intense conviction there is no better solution. Suicide is the number 1 cause of death for Australians aged 15-25, 25-35 and 35-44, as reported year after year by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. For every death, 30 times as many people have attempted suicide.
It is a myth that talking about suicide will ‘put the idea’ into someone’s head.
It is also a myth that those who talk about it never do it. A small number do!
Express your care and concern
- Maybe start the conversation by expressing your concern. ‘I have been really worried about you lately. Is everything okay?’
- Ask “How Okay are you on a 0 to 10 scale?”
- The answer to this will give you an idea of how much your friend is suffering and what needs to happen next, in terms of getting help.
- If your friend wants to talk, stay calm and non-judgemental. Just listen. Don’t try to fix him or her. Please, just listen. You can say stuff like, ‘That must be so hard for you’ or “I think I understand”.
- Giving a suicidal person the opportunity to put their feelings into words can really help. If you show a genuine concern and willingness to provide support, there is every chance your friend will start talking, but it is important to be patient. Talking to someone who cares tells us we are not alone, while depression tries to tell people they are totally alone. You don’t have to solve problems, just be there, so your friend knows they are not alone!
Ask direct questions
- If your friend seems deeply distressed and desperate, it is reasonable to ask questions such as
- ‘Do you ever wish you did not wake up in the morning?’
- If your friend answers ‘Yes’, the next question could be ‘Do you actually wish you were dead?’
- If the answer is another ‘Yes’, the next question could be:
- ‘On a scale of zero to 10 where zero means you never think about ending your life, and 10 means that you are definitely going to do it, how bad is it now?’ If your friend gives an answer that is at all high, you must seek help and tell someone. Promises of secrecy don’t matter when life is at stake.
- The next question could be ‘Have you thought of ways of doing something to yourself to end your life?’
- Finally, ask him or her if they have made a plan for ending his life and what it involves.
- Ask your friend would he or she advise anyone else to suicide if they had problems!
- Even if you are not used to dealing with situations like this, and you feel frightened or upset, it is incredibly important that your friend feels supported enough to be honest with you. If you reassure your friend that he or she is not alone, this is a great help.
- Reassure him or her that you understand how badly they must feel to have thoughts of suicide, but tell your friend that there are always other solutions to our problems.
- Your friend may insist that the pain and emotional distress will never pass, but people survive war and terrifying natural disasters,
- and the painful memories eventually fade. Human beings are programmed to survive and to overcome emotional pain. Otherwise we would have died out as a species long ago.
- If your friend is talking to you about suicide, part of him or her is still considering not taking his own life. He or she is seeking help.
- Most suicidal people are not trying to get attention, they just want their inner pain to stop. So please don’t judge them or lecture them. Just tell them you are there for them and listen. Don’t insist you are more right. The sick bit wants to die, the healthy bit wants to live.
Persist with your support
- Stay in touch with your friend and let them know that he or she doesn’t have to put on an act with you, that they don’t have to talk to you or pretend to be normal. Tell your friend that you just want to be with them while he or she is having a tough time.
- If your friend has a mental illness which causes him or her to have thoughts of suicide, be aware that these thoughts can come back from time to time, so that’s why your continuing support and persistence will make a big difference until the illness subsides or gets treated.
Can your friend stay safe?
- Mental illnesses such as stress, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, bipolar illness and schizophrenia distort people’s thinking, so that they see only negatives in life, which is why suicide can seem like a logical option. Your friend is looking at the world through damaged glasses, and can see only blackness and despair.
- This is the point where you can assess if you need to get more help. Ask your friend if he or she can promise to ‘stay safe’ for an agreed period of time. If they can’t make what you believe is a genuine commitment to staying safe for a short period, or if their thoughts of suicide are strong, or their score out of 10 is even moderately high, it’s time to call in help immediately.
- Be honest and say, ‘Look, I’m worried that you are going to harm yourself. I’m going to call for help.’ Stay with him or her while you make the call (Emergency Services 000) and then either stay with them until help arrives, or physically take them to see a doctor or other professional. Or take your friend to the emergency department of the local hospital.
- Even if he/she insists that they can stay safe for a short period of time, you still need to disable his or her plan if they will cooperate. Ask your friend to give you the means they were going to use to attempt suicide.
Seek support for yourself
- It is emotionally draining trying to help a suicidal person. Make sure you look after your own safety both physically and emotionally.
- If someone has decided to end their life and does so, or tries, it is their decision, influenced very often by illness. Whatever you have done to try and help will not have been a cause of their death. You are a friend, not a trained professional. If you find yourself in this situation seek help for yourself. We all can only do our best.