BY GUEST AUTHOR/CONTRIBUTOR, STEVE JOHNSON
When a loved one is showing signs that they may be thinking about suicide, you’re likely fraught with anxiety and fear. Unsure how to help and what steps to take, fearing that you may do the wrong thing and do more harm than good, you may feel helpless. But there are many ways that you can offer support and help someone you care about access the care that they need to regain their health and well-being. In fact, by taking action when you fear a loved one is considering suicide, you might just save their life.
Recognizing Warning Signs of Suicidal Ideation
There are many warning signs that may indicate that someone is having suicidal thoughts. Understanding the possible indicators of severe depression and suicidal thoughts is the first step in being able to help.
If you don’t recognize these signs, you may overlook a serious problem and miss an opportunity to help them get the care they need. Possible indicators that someone may be considering suicide may include:
- Withdrawal – Not wanting to participate in social activities that they once enjoyed.
- Avoiding friends – Intentionally avoiding interactions with close friends and family members, and choosing to spend time alone rather than in the company of others.
- Sleep problems – Sleep problems may include sleeping too much or sleeping too little. Any sudden and drastic change from a person’s usual sleeping habits may be cause for concern. While it doesn’t always indicate suicidal ideation, it could indicate other underlying health concerns.
- Hopelessness – Expressing hopelessness about the future or having a negative outlook.
- Sadness or moodiness – Experiencing severe mood swings, rage, or overwhelming sadness.
- Change in personal appearance – Seeming as though they don’t care about their appearance or diminished personal hygiene.
- Giving away personal items – Giving their most treasured possessions to friends or family members. This can indicate an effort to be sure that their valued belongings are passed on to a specific person. These are usually items that they wouldn’t give away.
- Dangerous behavior – Participating in reckless driving, unsafe sex, alcohol and/or drug abuse. If substance abuse is also a problem, treatment should encompass not only the mental health issue leading to suicidal thoughts but also the addiction.
- Sudden calmness – Suddenly developing a calm demeanor, seemingly out of nowhere following severe depression or moodiness. This often arises as a result of having made a decision to attempt suicide, which the person may view as the end to their struggles.
- Recent trauma or crisis – Experiencing a major crises such as the death of a spouse or loved one, the loss of a job, or divorce.
- Threatening suicide – Verbally expressing their intent to attempt suicide. These threats may be written or spoken, but if someone communicates a desire to end their life, it should always be taken seriously.
How to Support a Loved One
If someone you care about is showing warning signs that could indicate suicidal ideation or has communicated a desire to end their life, offering support is the best thing you can do. There are a multitude of ways you can show support such as helping them contact mental health services, offering encouragement that the problems they’re facing today are solvable, and offering to be a shoulder to lean on or a friend to listen to whatever struggles are plaguing their mind. Here are a few ways you can offer support to a friend or family member who is considering suicide.
- Sign a contract or create a safety plan. Helping them develop steps to follow if they’re in a suicidal crisis is essential. After developing the critical steps to take, have them sign a commitment agreeing to take these steps – such as contacting you or another loved one right away – if they find themselves in a crisis situation. Include in the contract phone numbers for every doctor and therapist involved in their care and friends and family who can help out in an emergency.
- Seek professional help. There are crisis lines you can call where trained crisis counselors can offer advice and refer you to treatment centers other resources for help. Encourage them to see a psychiatrist or therapist; you can help by setting up and even taking the individual to their appointment(s). 911 should be called immediately if there is imminent danger.
- Remove all potential means of suicide. Knives, razors, firearms, pills, and medication should be removed or secured in a location that’s difficult to access.
- Be proactive. Because those thinking about suicide may not think they can be helped, it’s a good idea to be a bit more proactive at offering support (without being pushy). Let them know that you plan to drop by or invite them to go out, even if you don’t believe they’ll want to do so.
- Show your support by listening and just being there. Sometimes they just need to talk. However, loved ones should remember to not be offended if they don’t want to talk, and you shouldn’t try to force them to open up about something they’re not ready to discuss. They might even just want to sit quietly with you. Just knowing someone is there for them can be incredibly comforting.
How to Help During and After Therapy
Continued support is necessary for anyone considering suicide before, during, and after treatment. You should stay in close contact with them and drop by to visit periodically. Take some time to help them find a therapist or counselor whom they trust, if they don’t have one already.
Slowly, you can encourage positive life changes such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy, getting fresh air, and trying to get some exercise. Be mindful that warning signs may reappear, so don’t let your guard down thinking that all is well simply because they’ve overcome a depressive episode in the past. For any questions from loved ones or suicidal individuals, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) should be called.