How to Help a Friend Who is Thinking About Suicide
If your friend is thinking about suicide, you can’t control what ultimately happens, you can control your part in their journey.
It’s 11 a.m. and I get a text from a friend: her partner disappeared and she’s freaking out, because he was talking about suicide.
That same evening, I’m chatting with a different friend. Something about the way she’s talking sounds hopeless and final. I’m concerned about her. Worried she can’t keep herself safe.
What do I say?
What do I do?
Do I let her go? Call the police? Ask her about… Suicide?
As a Suicide Interventionist, I have learned that there actually is a guide to help myself—and others—when suicide is threatening someone’s life.
The following are steps that have helped me countless times, including in the situations I just mentioned. (Each of those individuals, by the way, are still alive.)
1. Pay attention
Signs that someone may be thinking about suicide vary. However, often, people will talk in terms of feeling helpless and hopeless. They may express that they are in some kind of mental, emotional, or physical pain.
Intense behaviour or attitude changes are also red flags. Think: is there something that has shifted recently for this person? Perhaps typically they are the life of the party, and suddenly are withdrawing and saying ‘no’ to everything.
“The more direct we are in asking about suicide, the more it helps the person struggling know they can be direct with us in their answer.”
That behaviour shift may be for self-care reasons, or it may be related to suicidal thoughts–or anywhere in between. The only way to know is to ask.
You might, on the opposite end, know a person who is naturally more introverted. Suddenly they’re saying yes to everything and taking risks; what is that all about? Explore it. Let your friend know you’ve noticed the change, and that you’re paying attention because you care about them. Ask if they’re doing okay.
“You’re not going to put the idea of suicide in someone’s head if it wasn’t already there.”
It can also be that your friend seems to have it all together. Everything about them seems ideal, but there’s something in the pit of your stomach that you can’t quite put your finger on. Something’s off. Is there something they’re not telling you? It might be nothing.
But what if all that perfectionism is an effort to cover up a serious struggle? Again, there’s no way to know unless you ask.
2. Ask about suicide
Let’s break down a huge fear people have in these situations: you’re not going to put the idea of suicide in someone’s head if it wasn’t already there.
But, how do you ask about a thing like suicide? The best approach is the direct approach.
“Staying silent doesn’t give either side the chance to connect to help.”
Don’t beat around the bush. When we do that, we send the message that maybe we don’t really want to talk about suicide.
Asking directly can sound like this: “are you thinking about suicide?”
Or, like this: “are you thinking about ending your life?” or “…killing yourself?” or “…taking your life?”
It can be scary for the person with suicidal thoughts to answer yes to that question, since suicide is not something we often openly discuss. Stigma and shame hang heavy in the air when we do. The more direct we are in asking about suicide, the more it helps the person struggling know they can be direct with us in their answer.
Remember, this may be an awkward conversation, but suicide is preventable. Staying silent doesn’t give either side the chance to connect, to help.
You don’t need to fix your friend. It’s not your job to fix. It’s the human condition to want to be heard, so listen. And don’t judge.
Talking, in and of itself, can relieve a lot of pain a person is feeling, because when we listen well it can help them put down the heavy load they’ve been lugging around. It may help them feel like they’re not alone, even if just for a moment.
That temporary relief can produce hope, and perhaps that’s a feeling your friend hasn’t experienced in a while.
4. Connect your friend with someone who can help them stay safe
Ideally, that connection will be someone who can help them build a safeplan. Any ASIST-trained caregiver can do this.
“Ask your friend who they’d feel comfortable talking to. You can even call or visit a crisis support together.”
Not sure how to find one of those? You can ask your school’s office, the campus counselling centre, campus police, or the health and wellness centre.
Often, distress line workers, social workers, resident dons, and other school supports have been trained in ASIST. Or, click here to download a free list of crisis supports including crisis lines like Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454) for post-secondary students.
Ask your friend who they’d feel comfortable talking to. You can even call or visit a crisis support together.
Connecting your friend with someone who can help keep them safe is an important step in expanding their circle of support. A crisis support can also take things one step further by helping your friend know how to keep themselves safe if those thoughts of suicide are still on them, or if they ever come back to threaten their life.
If your friend is in immediate danger and/or is refusing to get connected to supports, then you need to call your Campus’ Police team, or Emergency First Response at 9-1-1.
5. Do something for yourself
We call this self-care. It might be going for a walk in the woods, listening to some music, or getting together with a friend who can help recharge your batteries. If it’s life-giving to you, it’s self-care.
You may need to process and debrief what happened, and that’s a good thing. Just use discretion in who you debrief with, since going to other friends may be seen as gossiping, which can be hurtful to your friend.
Instead, take advantage of your campus supports. For example, book an appointment at the campus counselling centre. Try asking them about upcoming workshops on coping skills, mindfulness, and other helpful skills-building seminars for you and your friend.
You can’t control what ultimately happens to your friend. What you can control is doing your best to help them, connecting them with additional supports, and engaging in healthy self-care practices.
You may also want to look into equipping yourself with suicide prevention skills by taking a 3.5 hour safeTALK (suicide awareness) workshop, or becoming ASIST-trained (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training). ASIST is a 2-day intensive workshop that teaches invaluable life-saving skills, like how to listen, find a turning point, and build a safeplan. Over 350,000 people have been trained in safeTALK around the world, and over 1 million have been trained in ASIST. These workshops work.
You’ve got options, and we’re glad your friend has you.