What to Do When You Think Someone is Suicidal
Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds. Still, suicide remains a taboo topic, is highly stigmatized and is surrounded by myth and mystery.
One of the biggest — and most destructive — myths is that if you discuss suicide, you’re planting the idea in someone’s head, said Scott Poland, Ed.D, the prevention division director at the American Association of Suicidology and associate professor at Nova Southeastern University. Clinical psychologist and suicide expert William Schmitz, Psy.D., likens it to talking to someone who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer. By mentioning cancer, you’re not forcing the topic front and center. “If someone is diagnosed with cancer, it’s on their mind.” Bringing it up shows support and concern. Similarly, by talking about suicide, you show the person that you truly care about them. In fact, lack of connection is a key reason why people have suicidal thoughts; isolation contributes to and escalates their pain.
In general, it’s important to take any suicide thought or attempt seriously. But what does that mean and then where do you go from there? Because we talk so little about suicide, there’s little awareness about how to help. Dr. Poland emphasizes that people don’t have to suddenly step into a therapist’s shoes and counsel the person. But there are important ways you can help. Drs. Schmitz and Poland discuss the best ways below.
Take suicide seriously, and don’t minimize it.
When talking to a person you think might be suicidal, it’s critical not to dismiss what they’re saying. While this makes sense, we might minimize a person’s pain without even realizing it. Poland even sees this when training professionals on suicide prevention.
For instance, in a training example, if the person says, “My life is so terrible right now,” it’s usually met with reactions like “Oh, it’s not that bad” or “I know you’d never hurt yourself.” Even when the person mentions being overwhelmed, well-trained professionals dismiss the comments. For instance, they say: ‘Things were awful for me last semester, too, and I got through it. Let me help you with your studying.” Although help is being offered, this reaction still minimizes and discounts the person’s feelings and experiences. And both slam the door on communication.
Know the warning signs.
According to both experts, these are some of the warning signs to pay attention to: dramatic changes in behavior or weight; drinking more than usual; mood changes; anxiety; making hopeless statements about death and dying; and isolating or withdrawing, such as dropping out of activities. Ultimately, though, “trust your gut that something is not quite right,” Poland said.
The American Association of Suicidology also features an in-depth list of warnings signs. It’s designed to help professionals detect risk for suicide, but it may give you more information.
Approach the person.
If you notice one or several red flags, don’t hesitate to talk to the person. Again, the worst thing you can do is to ignore what’s happening. Poland suggested starting the conversation by saying something like: “’I’d like to talk to you a minute, I’m really worried, you seem like you’re a little down. Could we talk about that? I’m here to help.”