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November 30, 2022
Your Loved One Is Suicidal: What Can You Say And Do?

Shift Team

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How To Support A Loved One Who Has Suicidal Thoughts

You notice that a loved one hasn’t been attending family events. When you check in with them, they tell you, “I’m so unhappy. Everyone would be happier if I just disappeared.” They don’t say, “I’m thinking about suicide,” but their words concern you. You don’t know what to say, but you want to be there for them. 

It’s normal to feel worried, helpless, or confused when a loved one mentions suicide, but there’s a lot you can do. Your compassion and support could save a life.

Recognizing the Signs of Suicide 

A common misconception about suicide is that attempts or deaths usually happen without warning. It’s critical to learn and understand the warning sides of suicide. Many individuals only show warning signs to those closest to them. Plus, the signs can be challenging to recognize, making the suicide appear to occur without warning. 

Things your loved one may say

Someone considering suicide could talk about: 

  • Wanting to die
  • Ways to end their life 
  • The world being better off without them 

A frequent myth is that people talk about suicide for attention. But someone who talks about suicide is more likely to die by suicide. The safest thing you can do is take your loved one’s words seriously. 

Things your loved one may do 

If you are concerned that a loved one may be suicidal, keep an eye out for any changes in their behaviour. Here are some actions and patterns you may notice if your loved one is considering suicide:

  • Lack of personal hygiene 
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns (increase or decrease) 
  • Reckless behaviour 
  • Increased substance use (drugs or alcohol)
  • Sudden shifts in their personality
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Giving away personal items
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family 

Things your loved one may feel 

Suicidal thoughts can be challenging to spot. For example, your loved one may joke about something alarming. They may also exhibit cheeriness, which seems fake to you. 

Feelings consistent with suicidal thoughts can include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety 
  • Lack of purpose 
  • Depression 
  • Shame
  • Disinterest 
  • Hopelessness
  • Sudden improvement in mood (may indicate that a person has a plan for suicide)
  • Feeling like a burden 
  • Irritability/ Mood Swings

Engaging in a Conversation About Suicide

Be mindful of the language you use 

Graph of language to avoid and what to try when engaging.

Ask Directly 

It is essential to be direct in your questioning. Asking about suicide openly and directly lets someone know you care and that you want to reduce stigma or shame. Use the word suicide.

When asking, explain why you’re bringing it up and mention some of the warning signs listed above. You might say, “Sometimes people joke about death when they’re thinking about suicide. Are you thinking of suicide?” or “I’ve noticed you’ve been more withdrawn lately. Are you thinking about death or dying?”

Offer Compassion 

Do’s and Don’ts 

  • Don't try to solve their problems for them. What may seem like a simple fix to you can seem impossible to someone in crisis.
  • Don’t deny their distress. Avoid questions or statements like, “How could you possibly feel that way?” or “Why would you want to die? You have so much to live for.”
  • Do validate their feelings and offer hope at the same time. 
  • Do listen to your loved one’s reasons for wanting to die. Often, releasing emotions can help give them a different perspective on their reasons for suicide.
  • Do use a gentle approach and hopeful tone to challenge their reasons for considering suicide and move towards a hopeful place. The fact that they’re talking to you indicates they may be unsure about the decision.

Encourage professional support without judgment

Encourage your loved one to speak to a therapist about their suicidal thoughts. Remember that you can’t force them to do anything, no matter how much you believe it would help. You can also offer to help them find a therapist or take them to the first appointment. 

Evaluate the danger 

If your loved one has a suicide plan and has a specific timeframe for it, get professional help right away. Keep in mind that someone who has previously attempted suicide is more at risk of suicide. 

Ask them what support(s) they have in their life besides you. Are they seeing a counsellor? Do they feel comfortable talking to other people in their life?

If someone is imminently in danger of taking their own life:

  • Call EMS/police and stay with them (in person or over the phone) until help arrives. 
  • Take them to the emergency room.
  • Continue supporting them with the tips above.

Safety Planning 

A great way to support your loved one is to help them build a safety plan. These plans are brief and generally include the following: 

  • Removing any easily available means to end their life
  • Staying with them through the night
  • Coping techniques to get through crisis periods (i.e., breathing exercises, a warm bath, tv shows)
  • List of reasons to reconsider suicide
  • Contact information for people they can call when thinking of suicide
  • Crisis lines/emergency services in case no one is available.

Stay in Touch

If your friend has thoughts of suicide but has no plan or immediate timeline, they may feel a little better after sharing their distress. Check in on your friend frequently. Mental health issues are not fixed quickly. Checking in on them shows that you care and are available if they want to talk again.

Connecting your loved ones with further support

It's essential to get help if someone you know is thinking about suicide. You're not alone. Learn about the resources available:

  1. Call your local crisis centers 
  2. Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566)
  3. Kids Help Phone (Text CONNECT to 686868) or call (1-800-668-6868)
  4. Hope for Wellness Help Line (1-866 APPELLE (277-3553) (Quebec residents) 

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 9-1-1 or your local emergency services (Source: Canadian government). 

Recognize you can’t do everything

Understand that even when loved ones and health professionals do all they can to intervene, a person may still die by suicide. Do not blame yourself for anything that happens. Make sure you’re practicing your own self-care and have support so that your own mental health does not suffer.

The more we know about the signs of suicide, the more we can help our loved ones through difficult times. Please join my free webinar on December 13: How to Safely Hold Conversations About Suicide. Also, you can reach out for one-on-one support through a Meet & Greet or initial appointment.

This article was written by Melanie Katz during their time at Shift Collab.

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