How to Help a Suicidal Person
Taking a suicidal person seriously is the first step to help prevent suicide.
If someone threatens or makes statements referring to suicide, take them seriously. Many people have taken their lives when people thought their statements about suicide were "manipulative" or the person was being "melodramatic".
Many people have died "accidentally". They may take some medication, for example, just to get others to hear them and feel they will be discovered and saved. Instead of calling attention to their needs, they in fact, died.
If the person is telling you either in person or over the phone that they are going to kill themselves, you call 911 right now. Law enforcement will come to the person's home and take them to be evaluated by a mental health person. Even if you feel in your heart, that they will not take their life, you go by what they are telling you. Don't wait to get over to their home to call 911. You call 911 right now from where ever you are.
If the suicidal person forbids you to call, is angry about it or upset, you call anyway. If you need to go to a neighbor's home to call, do it. If it's in the middle of the night, wake up the neighbor and make that call.
If the person is calling from an unknown location and discusses suicide, try to find out where they are. You cannot send someone to them if you do not know where to find them.
What if that person has you in confidence and makes you swear that you will not tell anyone how they are feeling? Do you keep that confidence? No. Would you be a lousy friend, mother, etc., if you broke that confidence? No. Suicidal discussion automatically ends confidentiality.
A person in crisis may not be aware that they are in need of help or be able to seek it on their own. They may also need to be reminded that effective treatment for depression is available, and that many people can very quickly begin to experience relief from depressive symptoms.
Ask these questions first:
- Plan - do they have one?
- Lethality - is it lethal? Can they die?
- Availability - do they have the means to carry it out?
- Illness - do they have a mental or physical illness?
- Depression - chronic or specific incident(s)?
What if the person does not "qualify" for the above statements? Do you not take them seriously? Yes, always take people seriously when suicide is discussed. If they truly want to die, they may not tell you the truth about their plan.
All it takes is for someone to say, "I am going to kill myself" to call 911. When law enforcement comes, they will assess the person. They will talk to the person. There are times where the person is not "taken" by law enforcement, but I do believe it is helpful to have law enforcement there to talk with them.
After you have taken emergency measures as described above, or the person is not in immediate risk, what do you say to them?
- Judge them
- Show anger towards them
- Provoke guilt
- Discount their feelings
- Tell them to "snap out of it"
- Acknowledge and accept their feelings even if they appear distorted - "You sound like you are feeling abandoned...", "That must have hurt you terribly...", "How does that make you feel...?", "Are you feeling like there is no hope?"
- Be an active listener - repeat some of their statements back to them to let them know you are listening. For example, "So what you are saying is....", "I'm hearing you saying you hate yourself...", "I hear you saying you want to die...", etc.
- Try to give them hope and remind them what they are feeling is temporary, without provoking guilt. "I know you feel you cannot go on, but things will get better", "What you are feeling is temporary", "I believe in you and that you will get better", "There is a light at the end of the tunnel - it's okay if you don't see it now".
- Be there for them. If they are not there with you, go to them or have them come to you. It is better if you go to them, in case they don't show up where you are.
- Show love and encouragement. Hold them, hug them, touch them. Allow them to show their feelings. Allow them to cry, to show anger, etc. Let them know you hear them and are there for them. Let them know it is okay to feel what they feel, even if it is distorted. Let them know you accept them right where they are now. If you love them, tell them.
- Pamper them. Feed them if they are hungry. Let them shower if you feel that will help them. Rent a movie if they feel like it. Turn on their favorite music if it makes them feel better.
- Help them get some help. If phone calls are needed for counseling, drug recovery, doctor appointments, etc., encourage them to make these calls. It is better if they call, but it's okay if you need to make these calls if their level of functioning is low. If they have a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc., this is a good time to call them if the person is still at risk. If it's evening and the person is not at risk, calls should be made the next day to these people, informing them of the person's suicidal ideation. The mental health professional may make an adjustment to the person's medications, admit them to the hospital, etc.
- If you are the person's home, remove any item/items the person may use to hurt themselves with. Grab their medication or weapon. Make these items inaccessible to the suicidal person until they are safe.
- Is there a child or children of the suicidal person witnessing their parent's crisis? Try to get the child out of there (after the person is safe) and into a friend or relative's home. This situation is extremely traumatic for children. Many times we think they are asleep but they are fully aware of the situation at hand.
Last Updated: 06 April 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD