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How to help someone who is suicidal

How to stop someone from attempting suicide

If you think a person is seriously thinking of ways to attempt suicide, you are advised by the NHS to do the following:

  • Contact your closest A&E department and ask them to put you in touch with a crisis resolution team (CRT). CRTs are teams of mental health care professionals who help those experiencing serious psychological distress.
  • While waiting for treatment, remove any possible suicide methods from the room.
  • If you think a person might try to complete suicide before there is time to get help from a CRT, dial 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Knowing that someone close to you is experiencing emotional pain can be devastating - no one wants to see someone they care for suffering. 

It can be difficult to know how to help someone who is experiencing suicidal feelings. As much as you want to stop them from feeling the way they do, you probably know that their unhappiness is deep and complex. You might be worried about the potential impact your interference could have - will it drive them further into themselves? Will talking about suicide trigger an attempt? 

Remember - if you are worried about someone, it's OK for you to get support. Speak with a friend, a counsellor, or any other person you feel you can trust. Talking about it, opening up and understanding what to do will put you in a better position to help your friend or family member.

Suicide myths

Suicide carries with it many myths and misconceptions. Unfortunately, these can be dangerous because they demonstrate a lack of understanding that could prevent vulnerable people from getting the right help they need at the right time.

It's vital that we get to the bottom of these suicide myths so people who need help can get the good quality support they need.

two friends talking over coffee

Suicide myth 1: People who talk about suicide are attention-seeking.

You should never assume this. The fact is: people who talk about killing themselves are looking for help. It doesn't matter if they've made serious suicide plans or not, the fact that they're reaching out shows that they have something they want to talk about. Take the opportunity to ask them more about how they feel. Showing that you care about them and value their feelings could help them see that they can cope with the right support in place.

Suicide myth 2: You shouldn't talk about suicide because it might give someone the idea to do it.

Suicide can be difficult to talk about, there's no denying that. If you think someone close to you is having suicidal thoughts, you might feel reluctant to bring the subject up in case it gives them the idea to do it. This is not true. In fact, most people say talking directly about their experiences can be a huge relief, and helps them discover other ways of getting through the pain they feel. Don't let this person carry their feelings around in silence - instead, give them a chance to release them. 

Suicide myth 3: If a person is serious about killing themselves then there is nothing you can do.

You might think there is very little you can do when someone appears to be in complete turmoil, but it's important to realise that their feelings are probably temporary. Feeling actively suicidal usually only lasts for a short period of time.

Even when that person has been struggling for a long time, there is still time to help them. People can recover even from the darkest places.

Signs someone wants to attempt suicide

People rarely complete suicide impulsively - even if it seems that way to the friends and family they leave behind. Often, people who die by suicide are ending a long history of pain they've kept hidden from the outside world.

If you suspect someone you know is suicidal but you're not completely certain, ask yourself this:

As far as I know, has this person ever experienced any of the following...

  • Sexual or physical abuse?
  • A traumatic event - like an accident, a natural disaster or severe violence?
  • Divorce, separation, or the end of an important relationship?
  • Struggling at school, university or work?
  • A recent bereavement?
  • Problems at work or job loss?
  • Impending legal action?
  • Money problems?

While everyone will have different reasons for experiencing suicidal thoughts, these issues can be the root of them for many. 

Next, ask yourself if you've noticed this person displaying any of the following behaviours:

Changes in social patterns - they stop attending social functions and become difficult to contact.

Lack of interest in physical appearance - not wearing makeup if they usually do, not washing, not ironing clothes or taking care of themselves can indicate a lack of care.

Self-destructive behaviour - self-harm, drug-taking, alcohol abuse, reckless driving and taking unnecessary risks can all be indicators that a person no longer cares whether they live or die.

Talking a lot about death and suicide - if someone talks frequently about death and suicide, it's likely that they're thinking about it too.

Expressing hopelessness - statements such as 'what does it matter?' and 'it's never going to get better' demonstrate that they see no way out of their situation.

Sudden appearance of calm - if they have been very depressed for a long time and they suddenly seem calm and happy, they may have made the decision to end their lives.

Men walking down the street

As well as looking out for changes in the way they act, you might want to take note of the things they do. For example:

  • Settling affairs - if they make a will, give away their favourite possessions or make certain arrangements with family members, it could be because they are preparing to die.
  • Sudden reconciliation - apologising for or admitting to things that happened a long time ago can indicate that they're laying old feelings to rest.
  • Seeking out potential suicide methods - if you find evidence of tools that could be used in suicide (or evidence that they are searching for them) then this person may be preparing their suicide.

How to help someone who is suicidal

If you're worried someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, the first thing you should do is ask them to talk about how they feel and listen to everything they say. Remember - you don't have to give them advice or say you know how they feel. Simply being there to listen can be a huge help. 

Instead, try to show empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is saying you can identify with what a person is saying. Empathy is saying you appreciate how they must feel, even if you have never experienced it yourself.

Avoid addressing their problems with your own experiences and instead, ask questions. Asking questions will give them the opportunity to be honest and encourage them to think about things that might not have occurred to them before. 

Don't be afraid to talk about these difficult subjects. Speaking openly about suicide will not make the person more likely to do it. In fact, it could make them feel less alone and frightened.

Help them look at options for solving their problems. Giving them the number for their GP is a good place to start as they will be able to arrange professional help. Alternatively, you can encourage them to contact a private counsellor or psychotherapist to start treatment immediately.

Get support for yourself

It can be hard to come to terms with the thought that someone you care about wants to end their life. You may experience a myriad of emotions, including:

  • Guilt - you might think you could have tried harder to keep them happy and to support them through their difficult times.
  • Hurt - depending on your relationship with this person, you might feel hurt that they want to end their life - especially if you are a big part of each other's lives. 
  • Angry - you might feel like they have no right to make such a big decision - have they thought about the impact their suicide will have on you or the rest of their friends and family?
  • Scared - you might be scared to leave them alone in case they attempt suicide. You might also be afraid of the responsibility you now face to help them get better.

When dealing with a person who might be suicidal, try your best to withhold your own emotions. As angry, shocked, hurt and scared you might be, try to focus on doing the following:

  1. Listen
  2. Show you care
  3. Give them hope

If you need help coping with these emotions, then you may find counselling beneficial yourself. A counsellor will help you come to terms with all of the stress you've been under and stop you from compromising your own mental health in the process.

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