In a conversation, someone has hinted that they might want to hurt themselves. This is a conversation that makes most people uncomfortable. I understand. When I first became a counselor, this topic made me nervous too. What made me most anxious was the thought that I could mess up. I literally felt like someone was putting their lives in my hands.
Twenty years later, I have a much different perspective. While I never want to hear that someone is thinking about hurting themselves, now I feel immediate empathy, my heart opens up, and I feel privileged that they chose me to share their deepest burden. If this situation happens in your life, take a deep breath. Here are some tips about what to do.
If someone talks to you about suicide, they are usually unsure if this is the path they want to take. Suicidal ideation is the term used when someone is thinking about suicide, but they are not sure if they will actually hurt themselves. If they chose to speak with you, that means they trust you. Possibly, they are considering suicide because something happened in their lives, or they have been dealing with something for a long time that they haven’t shared. They are probably experiencing overwhelming feelings of pain and anguish. To keep their trust, create a safe and supportive space for them to talk.
What should I do?
Maintain eye contact, open body language, and do your best to remain calm. It is normal to feel anxious. You might feel that way because you’re afraid you will give them bad advice. However, if they are speaking with you, they believe you will be supportive. Allow yourself to feel the natural and authentic compassion you would normally feel for a friend or loved one who is in pain. Be open to what they have to say. Listen without judgment. By talking to you, they might feel relieved to get this burden off their chest.
What should I say?
Acknowledge that you understand their situation and that you care about them. Validate their feelings and avoid making generalized statements that could make them feel judged, such as “You don’t know how lucky you are” or “You shouldn’t feel like that.” Those considering suicide are often wondering whether they should live or die. Without minimizing their feelings, do your best to talk to the side of them that wants to live. Remind them that they do not have to act on their suicidal thoughts or feelings. Perhaps, you can help them see things differently. This is hard work, so don’t do it alone. Reach out to their support network to gather a team around them. Ask them if they want you to help them seek professional help.
How do I help them seek professional help?
Psychology Today has a list of therapists searchable by location, specialty, gender, age, insurance, etc. You can help them scroll through the therapists to see if there are some who stand out. Most therapists offer free 15-minute consultations. Encourage them to call. You can call together, or even go with them to their first appointment. If the situation is urgent, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is open 24 hours per day. Another option for immediate support is the Suicide Call Back Service (1-300-659-467). They can also provide up to six free telephone counseling sessions.
If they have a plan to hurt themselves, do NOT keep this to yourself. Be firm. Tell them that their safety is what you value the most and you can’t keep this a secret. You will want to involve the suicidal person in seeking help as much as possible. If they are still resistant, and their risk is high, you will need to contact emergency services on their behalf. This is a tough conversation, but you will always want to err on the side of caution.