11 Steps to Help Someone With Suicidal Thoughts

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If someone you loved was feeling suicidal would you know what to do? I am hardly ever prepared, even as a trained trauma therapist, to tackle the responsibility of helping someone who is suicidal. Why? Because any wrong move or wrong advice/suggestion could do nothing more than sink that person further into despair. The minutes that are ticking after you find out about the suicidal thoughts is significant. Those minutes will decide that person’s fate. Whatever you say or whatever that person thinks will either pull them out of despair or leave them sinking. Talking to someone strongly considering suicide is very, very difficult. In fact, I believe it is one of the most difficult things to do as a therapist.

This article will list 11 steps you can take to help you possibly save the life of someone you love.

When someone is considering suicide that most often means that the individual is fed up, tired, or completely done with trying to hold on. We all, as humans, are holding on. But some people feel that holding on is too hard which results in the person thinking of ways to “get out.” Getting out of the daily process of holding on, for some people, may include suicidal thoughts.

We must be ready and know what to say to someone who is discouraged. I encourage you to:

  1. Ask the person how they are feeling and why. Be careful with these questions as you can appear to be probing and someone who is considering suicide may not be ready to discuss the “last straw” with you. Follow your intuition.
  2. Avoid arguments or guilt-trips. Attempt to get the person to share details or talk about random things. Getting the person to talk is a good way to get them out of “their head” and keep them distracted.
  3. Use humor wisely and only if the person signals, in some way, that they are open to humor. For example, if the person says something that appears humorous or becomes lighthearted in some way. Humor can break barriers and renew the spirit.
  4. Respectfully share a personal experience and make it succinct. The last thing you want to do is say “well, I have felt like you before and I got over it.” This is very dismissive and cold. You also don’t want to tell a personal story that appears to be drawing attention away from the issue at hand or the suffering person. The goal of respectfully telling a similar experience is to create a “common ground” and help the person see you understand the type of pain they may be feeling.
  5. If you do not really know the person, consider building rapport by creating a compassionate conversation. Building rapport is extremely important when working with someone considering suicide. Think of building rapport as building a house 1 layer at a time. Rapport is easier to build if the person likes you or knows you (i.e., such as in the case of a therapist-client relationship or family member). The closer you are to the person considering suicide, the easier it will be to help them. You never want to put an inexperienced stranger or person in the position of having to help the suicidal person as they will most likely make mistakes that can cost the person his or her life.
  6. If the person is serious about committing suicide you should ask if there is anything you or someone else can do to make things a little bit better. Make it clear that you want to help. Make it clear that you cannot stop the pain but that you want to help lighten the load a bit. Always aim to come across as asking permission and not telling the person to do something. Asking for permission puts the control back into the person’s lap and allows you to take the humble position of assisting.
  7. Explain, when everyone is calm, why you wanted to help. Try your best to take the attention off of the person’s behavior and suicidal thoughts. Explain that suicidal thoughts are normal and typical but that you recognize there are better ways for most people to cope with pain.
  8. Do not be a “know-it-all” by using philosophical jargon or psychological terms. Be human, be humble, be supportive. A person in crisis wants help, even when they claim they do not.
  9. If the person is adamant about suicide, get someone else involved. You may have to call the police and ask for a 302 (hospitalization against the person’s wishes) or a 201 (if the person agrees to get help). You may have to distract the person through conversation and the steps above until police or help can arrive. If the person is somewhere you cannot be, call the police immediately and give them the address. Tell them the nature of your call and explain the imminent risk of the situation.
  10. If the person is refusing to talk to you but you are near the person, your presence alone (if you are calm and in control of your own emotions) can add a layer of control to the situation and create calm. For example, when I worked in a residential treatment facility (a campus of youngsters) with mental health problems and suicidal/homicidal behaviors, I would go to the area the child or teen was and stand around them while avoiding direct eye contact (which can be intimidating) and intimidating posturing. My mere presence caused the child/teen to not only calm down but openly communicate with me.
  11. If you have done all you can and the person remains highly influenced to take his or her own life, step away and allow the professionals (hospital staff, therapist, police, etc) to help the person or at least attempt to help them. Sadly, a person who is adamant about killing themselves will attempt to succeed in some fashion. As much as we want to help, we cannot always help.

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This is a very challenging topic that many of us would rather avoid. But it is important to understand how you can help if you are ever put in a situation where someone needs you. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, I encourage you to call the National Suicide Hotline for support: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or visit www.Remedylive.com for a Christian perspective.