My Friend Is Talking About Suicide. What Do I Do?
Sadly, this is a question I hear far too often in my office. Teens and young adults today have so many difficult emotional and relational challenges to navigate, and for many the thoughts and attempts of suicide are real.
If someone you care about is talking about suicide, it can be a gut-wrenching experience. What should I say? What do I do? Do I tell someone? What if I say or do the wrong thing and something horrible happens?
Being a caring friend can be incredibly difficult in these circumstances. The stress from trying to help friends dealing with suicidal thoughts can be overwhelming, even for adults. More than once I have had patients come in to see me for counseling–not because they were suicidal–but because they were so stressed that their friends were.
So what should you do if someone you care about is talking about suicide?
First, let’s look at what not to do.
- Ignore it. “I don’t know what to say or do, and I’m afraid I will do the wrong thing, so I just won’t do anything. Someone else can help.”
I can certainly understand why some people choose not to get involved. But ignoring someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts is not the right answer. You might not know what to say or do, but just a short call or text might be the one thing that lifts their spirits. And pulling back from someone who is in a dark place could cause them to feel even more isolated and alone.
- Dismiss it. “She is just talking about suicide for attention. I should just tell her to quit being so dramatic.”
I have heard this comment in my office from both friends and parents. And to be fair, there are some teens who do make suicidal gestures to get attention. But the last thing you want to do is invalidate someone who is struggling emotionally. Some teens might even take this as a dare to prove to you that they are serious, which is obviously the last thing you want to encourage.
- Take on too much responsibility. “My friend’s life is at risk so it is my job to save him. I’ll put my life on hold, stay up all night, skip school, and do whatever I have to. It seems like it is all up to me.”
Many, many teens feel this way, and think that it is entirely up to them to save the life of their friend. I have worked with some teens who put far too much pressure on themselves to do something far beyond what should be asked of them. You should be a loving, supportive friend–not a professional therapist or a 24/7 crisis line.
- Try to fix their problems. “Here is what you should do…”
You may feel tempted to tell your friend what to do or give them advice in how to handle their problems, but don’t. Just be with them and listen. Advice is not what your friend really needs, and it’s not your job to come up with solutions for their problems anyway.
- Tell them how they should feel. “You shouldn’t be sad. You have so many good things in your life!”
Telling someone that they shouldn’t be sad (or suicidal) because other people have it worse, or that they should snap out of it because they have a lot of reasons to be happy doesn’t help. Just listen to them and try to understand what they are feeling. Even if it seems like they have a perfect life, your friend obviously doesn’t feel that way right now. Just listen and validate where they are coming from.
So what should you do?
- Be there. Sometimes the best thing you can do when a friend is hurting is just to show up. If your friend is struggling, go spend time with them. Reach out to them. You don’t have to have all the answers or even know what to say. A real friend is there for you in your darkest times, even if it just means sitting with you so that you are not alone.
- Listen. Really listen and try to understand what your friend is going through without judging them or telling them what to do. See if you can understand their perspective and see the situation from their point of view, even if their point of view is different from yours. A friend who is willing to listen can make a big difference.
- Talk about it. Many people think that if they talk with someone about suicide it will make them more likely to commit suicide. But research shows us the exact opposite is true. So if you think someone you care about is thinking about suicide, ask them directly if they are. It can be a scary topic to talk about, but bringing the conversation out in the open is much better than keeping it hidden.
- Encourage social activities. Think of something you can do together with your friend and possibly other friends. Suicidal people often feel isolated and alone, and finding activities that will bring people together so they feel connected can be a big help.
- Point them in the right direction. Help your friend connect with a Crisis Hotline like Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or a counselor. It is not your job to be a professional therapist. Be a friend, but also know when it’s time to suggest your friend talk to a professional, and help them find a professional that can help.
- Talk to an adult. If you are seriously worried about your friend’s safety, talk to an adult. Yes, your friend might get mad at you. But I have also seen many occasions when someone is actually thankful that a friend cared enough to step in and tell an adult. And even if they do get mad, you know that you did it out of love and care. Plus, keeping these struggles to yourself is just too much of a burden to carry.
- Follow up to see how they are doing. Just because you had one talk and it looks like things are better doesn’t mean the conversation is over. Circle back and check up on your friend after a period of time. Real friends continue to care.
Take Care of Yourself, too
And finally, make sure that you take care of yourself. It can be incredibly stressful and difficult talking to friends that are thinking of suicide. If you spend all your time helping others without taking care of yourself eventually you will be the one who burns out. So make sure that you take time to take care of yourself. Get sleep, exercise, eat regular healthy meals, spend time with friends, and do something that recharges you. Don’t carry the weight of others on your shoulders. After all, you won’t be able to help someone else carry their burden if you are too weighed down.