What to say if someone tells you that they feel suicidal and how to support and help them
Updated: Jan 27
Every post that I write on here is vitally important, but today's is especially so, because knowing what to do when someone tells you that they feel suicidal could be the difference between life and death.
The problem is that simply talking about my suicidal thoughts would never have been enough on it's own to prevent me from taking my life.
I needed successful medical intervention, as well as emotional support, to stop the suicidal thoughts that plagued my mind when I was in my deep depressions and mixed state bipolar episodes.
But it is very important that people are educated about how to react if someone opens up about their thoughts and feelings.
Saying the wrong thing can have a very damaging and detrimental effect, and can stop the sufferer from talking completely. This happened to me, and in the end I stopped talking to everyone except Mum about how desperate I was, and even then I felt bad for burdening her with it - it's so hard on sufferer and supporter which is why we desperately need more support and advice services.
Through my 20 year psychiatric nightmare I've had all sorts of ridiculous reactions and comments, all of which could have been enough to push me over the edge.
I've been screamed at, told to go for a run, told to 'have a gin and tonic in the bath and get over it', told to 'MAN UP', told to 'keep my chin up', instructed to 'keep a stiff upper lip', told that 'other people are starving so why are you depressed' , told 'I'm too busy to be depressed', and the one that very nearly finished me off:
"You're talking about it - so that means you're not going to do it"
I have no idea how I've managed to survive and withstand these comments, (let alone the illness itself), when I've had to put up with years of ridiculous and insensitive advice and instructions like this.
But it's important to learn from what happened to me rather than complaining about it so - with my experience of repeated suicidal ideation - What would I advise the supporter to say when the sufferer admits to feeling suicidal?
The first thing that it is important to do is to take them very seriously. Stop whatever you are doing, give them some of your time and LISTEN.
Having been on right on the edge myself I would instantly say "I've been there too, nothing shocks me, please tell me everything and be honest about how you're feeling, I'm here for you, and I'm going to help you".
I would then listen to everything they have to say and let them get it out without questioning anything until they've finished speaking. It is important to note that if the sufferer is depressed and suicidal that a lot of their thoughts will be skewed by depression (I thought the whole world was against me), so accept what they are saying without trying to contradict them. You must do this even if it sounds like a personal attack, because this is the illness talking and that is not their fault.
Saying 'I hear you' or 'Thank you for telling me and being so honest' will also encourage them to open up further and stay with you.
If appropriate give them physical support too. A hug from a loved one is an amazing demonstration of love and can really help the mentally shattered person to feel a bit safer and less isolated. If they are a family member or a loved one, tell them over and over that they are loved and needed because unfortunately, when you get to the end you feel as though people would be better off without you, and it's almost impossible to access any emotion relating to love or affection.
Tell them that you are going to be there for them and you are going to help them to find the right support, then guide them to support pages and charities like those listed on the home page. Go with them to doctor's appointments if you can, and do everything to make their life as easy as possible. It's hard to understand this, but when you are suicidal (especially if you're suffering from depression) even putting a pair of socks on feels like an impossible and unachievable task so supporting them through the process of getting help is ESSENTIAL.
Tell them to stop working in order to get better. This is a big part of why we lose people, especially men, because risking losing the things that you've worked so hard on is a horrible thought and can be enough for someone to take their own life without even suffering from depression. Reassure them that you will help them to manage things and that their life is more important than anything else.
Point them towards further help and fellow sufferers who understand. It's very hard for a non-sufferer to understand why someone would want to take their own life, so knowing that someone else has been there is of great comfort and reassurance to the sufferer. Hearing from someone with experience of surviving suicidal ideation is almost more important than hearing from a professional, because it immediately softens the impact from feeling like that.
Tell them not to feel guilty for feeling like this. Help them to understand that this is not their fault. Environmental factors (often combined with depression) have led them to this point. They must be reassured that they are not to blame for feeling like this, and that they must not berate themselves either, because that just exacerbates and intensifies the guilt that they are already feeling.
Reassure them that things can and will get better. This one is difficult for me because I was suicidal in every waking moment for 18 months in my last episode, and I don't think I would ever have come out of it without the successful medical intervention that I received just in the nick of time. But, things can change and I am living proof that with time, patience, persistence, resilience and a never give up attitude, even those with severe mental illnesses can achieve remission and recover. Give them examples of people who have survived against the odds and recovered, like myself and many others.
Writing all of this down is incredibly hard because I know that talking alone does not save people from suicide. It's just simply not enough. When I was in suicidal crisis there wasn't really anything anyone could have said that would have held me back, and even my own knowledge, empathy, advice and support was not enough to save my friend Tom.
I'm sorry to have to point this out, but in addition to support through talking, we need treatments that work, otherwise we will not see a reduction in suicide rates.
I found quite a nice video on YouTube which explains a few of the things that you can say to support the suicidal person which you can find on the home page, there is also a short article on the BBC News page which you can find here.
Please continue to share these posts to others so that more people can benefit from them, and please keep sending me your suggestions for future posts and discussions.
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,