man talking to his therapist about suicide

A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping People with Suicidal Thoughts

This blog contains descriptions of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Please proceed with caution and do not read if you are sensitive to this kind of language. Instead, take care of yourself and reach out for help. 

Suicide is a serious problem in the United States and around the world. It is one of the leading causes of death across all age groups and accounts for the second-highest number of deaths in people aged 10 to 35. As prevalent and terrifying as this issue may be, there’s one important fact to keep in mind: you can help prevent suicide.

At some point in your life, someone you love may have thoughts of suicide. By having a plan of action, you can help them survive this difficult time.

1) Ask If They Have Thoughts Of Suicide

Many people are afraid to ask someone if they are thinking of suicide. Not only is it a difficult conversation, but people worry that they will plant the idea into someone’s mind. However, research shows that asking frankly about suicidal thoughts actually decreases thoughts of suicide. When you open up this discussion, make sure that the other person understands that you are not passing judgment and that you’re there to support them.

Ultimately, you want to get to the most pressing question: “Are you thinking about suicide?” However, other important questions can help you get there, such as:

  • How are you handling all the things going on in your life?
  • Do you ever just want to give up?
  • Do you sometimes think about dying?

Once you ask these questions, be sure to be ready to hear the answers.

2) Listen and Connect

If the person gives any indication of wanting to die, stay with them. Whether by phone or in-person, it’s important to be with them however you can. Listen to them talk about their experiences and feelings.

If you can’t physically be near the person, ask who is nearby and can support them. It’s important to listen to the answer carefully. Even if they name someone you wouldn’t choose, encourage your loved one to reach out to someone nearby.

During this step, you do not need to feel like you’re validating their wish to die. Instead, you’re reinforcing your connection. This step can stop the person’s feelings of isolation, which often contribute to suicidal thoughts and actions.

3) Establish Immediate Safety

Once your loved one is reminded of their connection to you, it’s time to get them to safety. This may mean asking questions such as:

  • When you think about suicide, do you have a plan?
  • Do you have access to weapons?
  • Do you have medication on which you could overdose?

The goal here is to understand how the person would die by suicide if it were to happen. Then, put both time and physical distance between the person and that method. For example, if your loved one says they would use a firearm, be sure to restrict access to all firearms.

4) Help Them Find Appropriate Help

You likely know that your loved one needs help, but knowing what kind of help to get can be more difficult. This is another case in which it’s important to listen and make a plan based on the person’s individual circumstances.

If the person has a specific plan, immediate action should be taken. This person may need to go to the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

If you’re not sure whether the emergency department is the right place to go, you can call the lifeline yourself. They can give you the tools that you need to determine the immediate threat and keep your loved one safe.

Remember that there are many different types of suicidal thoughts. Some mean the person is in more immediate danger. If your loved one is having passive suicidal thoughts with no plan, they may benefit more from contacting professionals who specialize in mental health care. If you’re not sure, calling the lifeline and taking their advice is the best choice.

5) Keep in Touch

An estimated 43 percent of all suicide deaths occur in the month after someone is released from the hospital, and 47 percent of those people die before their first follow-up appointment. Stark statistics like these show how important it is to follow-up with someone during and after treatment for suicidal thoughts.

Once your loved one has gotten help, be sure to stay connected to them. A phone call, text, or message can make a big difference. This continued support reduces the risk of feeling isolated again, and can even reduce the risk of suicide. You can also let your loved one know that you are a safe person to talk to if they ever think about suicide again.