When a person is reaching the end of their tether and considering suicide, they are often less capable of thinking rationally. At times like this, a concerned person in their immediate environment can make all the difference. Many of us want to help, but our first thought is ‘I don’t know what to do!’ or ‘I’m not a professional, I can’t possibly help.’ While it is true that professional help is required, family and friends can take the first, extremely important steps in prevention.
Don’t be afraid to open the subject
We might wonder if it is safe to discuss suicidal thoughts, worried that it might even put thoughts into a person’s head. There is absolutely no evidence that talking about suicide provokes a person to actually attempt it. Instead, there are clear indications that being able to speak about these thoughts reduces anxiety, and also opens the way to getting the required help.
Who is especially vulnerable?
Anyone can be suicidal, given sufficient triggers, but some people are at greater risk. If the person has experienced any of the following, you need to be more alert.
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Severe stress, trauma, bereavement
- A previous attempt at suicide
- Family history of suicide
- Social isolation
Signs to look out for
How do you know that your family member or friend might be suicidal? Here are some indications:
- A direct threat to kill oneself. (It is NOT true that if a person says that they are going to commit suicide then they will not actually do it. Quite the contrary.)
- Indirect statements like ‘There’s no point going on’, ‘Everyone will be better off if I’m gone’, ‘They will appreciate me when I’m dead’, ‘Life is not worth living’.
- Looking for means to end their lives – searching online for methods, procuring medication or pesticides.
- Saying goodbye, giving away possessions, writing a will
How you can help
Family and friends are the first line of defence. However, our responses could make the situation better – or worse!
There are many common reactions that can do more harm than good. Here are some things that you should avoid!
- Trivialising the problem. ‘This is a small issue, it is not worth getting worked out about.’
- Being judgemental. ‘How can you be so thoughtless, you are not thinking how it will affect your family.’ ‘You are being weak / a coward / wicked/ stupid.’
- Acting shocked.
- Giving false reassurance. Glib statements like ‘Everything will be all right’ ‘You will feel better soon’ ‘Time heals’ ‘Just think positive’ are well-intentioned but rarely helpful.
- Promising secrecy. You will have to alert others, so you cannot keep this promise. Of course, you should maintain confidentiality and not discuss this loosely except with the people concerned.
Here are some things to do that will be very helpful.
- Find a private space to talk.
- Listen, stay calm and express understanding of what the person is going through. Remember, you don’t have to provide a solution.
- Encourage the person to seek professional help and provide assistance to do so. For example setting up an appointment, offering to accompany them. A medical doctor or psychiatrist would be the appropriate person to contact. You could also go directly to a hospital with a psychiatric unit where immediate help will be available.
- If there seems to be an imminent danger, don’t leave the person alone. If you are not the immediate family then alert a next of kin to the situation and ask them to come. Remain with the person until family or medical help arrives. Hospitalisation may be required if the risk is high.
- As an immediate measure try to remove means of harm– poisons, knives and sharp objects.
- Follow up. Even if a person gets professional help, it is still reassuring to have loved ones express concern, so do stay in touch. Don’t worry about not knowing the right thing to say. Just the fact that you have connected will help.
If you have some specific concerns about a friend or family member who might be suicidal, you can discuss with a counsellor.