When & How to Help
Know the Warning Signs
The majority of people who attempt suicide show some signs of what they are feeling. If you observe any of these suicide warning signs, especially if you notice that the behavior is something new, act or say something immediately.
Being a burden
Having no reason to live
Drug or alcohol abuse
Researching suicide methods
Withdrawing from others
Putting affairs in order
Calling to say goodbye
Giving away belongings
Loss of interest
“Are you thinking about suicide?”
If you're unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask. Talking about suicide does not put the idea in someone's head. Asking directly and using the word "suicide" establishes that you and the person at risk are talking about the same thing. In addition, it allows the person to know that you are willing to talk about suicide.
“Do you have a specific plan?”
Reduce the person's access to things they could use to hurt themselves. You want to put time and distance between the person and their chosen method, especially methods that have shown higher lethality (like firearms and medications).
Several studies have indicated that when lethal means are made less available or less deadly, suicide rates by that method decline, and frequently suicide rates overall decline. The myth “If someone really wants to kill themselves, they’ll find a way to do it” often does not hold true if appropriate safety measures are put into place.
Listen to understand and not to fix. Listen to the reasons that the person has for wanting to die or live. Let them unload despair or vent anger. No matter how negative the conversation seems, the fact that it exists is a positive sign. Validate the considerations of the alternatives and emphasize that living is an option. Your job is not to be a counselor but to hear the person out.
Remember that you are only as helpful as you are healthy. Make sure that you take care of yourself during and after the conversation.
“Have you thought about getting help?”
Do everything in your power to get a suicidal person the help they need. But in the end, they have to decide to get help. If you’re not sure what to do, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If it’s during business hours and you’re on campus, walk the person over to the Student Health & Counseling Center where he or she will be seen immediately. Both the Lifeline and the SHCC can also consult on how to approach and interact with the individual at risk.
One way to start helping the person find ways to connect is to work with them to develop a safety plan – a set of steps they can use to guide them through a crisis. This can include triggers of suicidal thoughts, what to do in crisis moments, and who to call.
“I’ll stop by tomorrow.”
Be proactive at offering assistance. Saying, “Call me if you need anything” is too vague. Don’t wait for the person to call you or even to return your calls. Drop by, call again, invite the person out.
What Not to Do
A life is at stake and you may need to speak to a mental health professional in order to keep the suicidal person safe. If you promise to keep your discussions secret, you may have to break your word.
Judge the person
Set aside your personal beliefs about suicide. Do not act shocked, lecture on the value of life, or say that suicide is wrong, selfish, or cowardly. Doing these things can exacerbate the person’s feelings of alienation.
Make the person justify their feelings
Avoid saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Things could be worse.” You don’t want to make the person feel like they have to justify their suicidal feelings because we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say.
Is it okay to leave them alone?
Do not leave a person at “high risk” for suicide alone. Those at the highest risk for suicide in the near future have a specific suicide PLAN, the MEANS to carry it out, a TIME SET for doing it, and an INTENTION to do it. If there is any doubt, take him or her seriously. Keep talking to that person, stay with him or her or arrange for another party (someone who that person trusts and feels comfortable with) to stay with them.
If you believe the person is going to carry out a suicide attempt or harm themselves, call 911 or take the person to the emergency room.