help4yourfamily

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5 Steps to Take if Someone You Love is Suicidal


Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last weeks post examined how to determine whether someone is actually suicidal. This week, I want to give you general guidance should you ever have someone you know who is actively suicidal. As I said last week, the hospital is the place to be for anyone who is suicidal, however, there are a few measures you might want to take if you are on the fence about how serious the feelings are that your loved one is experiencing. This post is not intended in any way to constitute medical advice. I strongly urge you to call a mental health professional or suicide prevention hotline if you are having these concerns.

An important side note for teens. Sometimes friends ask us to keep a secret for them about their thoughts of dying. This is not a safe secret! Please tell an adult immediately- your parents, you school guidance counselor, or a trusted teacher, aunt or uncle is a good choice. Here’s the thing- you would rather have an alive, angry friend, than a dead friend who isn’t angry with you.

If you are suicidal, please seek help now. Suicide is what we in the mental health profession like to call a long-term solution to a short-term problem. I know so many people who once contemplated ending it all  who are sooo happy they decided to stick around.

5 steps to Take with a Suicidal Loved One (including what to do if they refuse to get help)

1. The first thing you need to do if you are worried that someone is suicidal is…ask! Asking can go like this:

Are you thinking about dying?

Do you ever think about killing yourself?

Have you ever considered taking your own life or hurting yourself?

Or any other way that sounds like it would work for you. There are a few important things to know about asking. The first important thing to know is that asking will not put the idea in someone’s head unless it was already there. This is, by far, the most common concern I hear about asking. I’ve asked so many people these questions that I cannot even count so let me tell you how asking typically goes from children through adults. I typically get one of two responses. One response is the, “I’ve thought about it a few times” response, or “I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.” These are causes for concern and need to be addressed. The other, much more reassuring response is when the person you ask looks at you like you have just grown an extra head before saying no and telling you that you get too serious all the time. A third response, that I have not gotten (probably because the people coming to see me are looking for help) is a muted response without committing either way. That is a concerning response that also needs to be addressed. Seriously though, just ask if you are worried someone is feeling that way. If you have any indication that they are suicidal or even thinking about it, continue on to question #2.

2. The next question you want to ask someone is: Have you ever thought about how you would do it?

This question gives you insight into how serious the person is. I remember someone saying to me once that she thought about killing herself and then, when I asked this question, she said, something along the lines of, “If I could be promised that dying were easy, and all I had to do was push a button and it would be over, I know there have been times I would have done that. Until it’s that easy, I’m not going anywhere.” This is a more reassuring answer since it implies that while the person has thought about it, they have not thought in an in-depth way.

There are other people, however, who will tell you what they thought about doing in a way that lets you know they have planned, they are thinking about it and they are serious, unless they are able to sufficiently reassure you that that is how they used to think and that they no longer are thinking in that way. These are people who must be seen by a mental health professional immediately for further evaluation. In the meantime, if possible, try to make sure that the means of harm they would use (prescription drugs, ropes, guns, etc.) are not available. Also, if a person says something to you like the only way they would kill themselves is to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and you live in Washington DC, you can breathe slightly easier. Still, to be on the safe side, I recommend everyone take the next step regardless of your level of concern.

3. Ask the person you are concerned about to make an agreement to go to the hospital or call the suicide prevention hotline if they feel as though they cannot promise safety. Ask them to promise you they will remain safe. Make them write it down if you need to in order to emphasize the agreement.

4. If you have any concerns that your loved one is still not safe to make good decisions, do not delay, get them to the hospital no matter what it takes. For a person that is not willing to go to the hospital, do not be too intimidated to call 911. That is what they are there for. As I stated earlier in this post, you would rather have a friend who is alive and angry, than a friend who is dead but still likes you. And, by the way, I don’t know anyone who ever stayed mad at someone who stopped them from dying. I know in my state, Maryland, there is also something called an “emergency petition” (you can just google emergency petition and the name of your state to find out about how to go about this in your state). An emergency petition is something a parent, partner, or mental health professional can fill out to get an order stating that the person must be evaluated by a mental health professional.   I have done emergency petitions before and, while I know people have visions of someone being taken away and institutionalized for years, I have yet to see that happen. What most typically happens is that the person goes to the hospital, gets evaluated, makes a safety contract, gets a support system and gets connected with counseling. If it’s helpful just think of it this way: hospitals are not any more interested in keeping people for psychiatric issues than they are for physical health issues. Insurance companies are just as invested in making sure people stay out of the hospital for this issue as they are for any other. In other words, don’t worry about getting someone to the hospital by whatever means necessary. In the end, you will be glad you did.

5. After it’s over, support your friend. Call them, check in with them and, get support for yourself. Remember, you never want to feel like the only person who is keeping someone else alive. It is not fair to either of you and is way too much pressure for one person alone.

Have you ever had to help someone in this way? What were your experiences?

October 11, 2012 - Posted by | Suicide

3 Comments »

  1. I agree with your point on Emergency Departments. I worked in one for 5 years, and I always preferred to see the individual go home with a safety plan over hospitalization. Great post.

    Comment by Corey L. Richardson, LCSW | October 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Yes, a safety plan is so much more preferable. The hospital often sends people home if they are willing to sign one anyway. Thank you for your comment!

      Comment by help4yourfamily | October 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] 5 Steps to Take if Someone is Suicidal […]

    Pingback by Why Sexual Abuse is Never a Child’s Fault…Not Even a Teenager « help4yourfamily | September 1, 2013 | Reply


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