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The Right Thing to Say: Helping Others In Times of Crisis

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Suicide isn’t an easy subject to broach. Most of the time, we don’t really know how to talk about it. However, with the rates of suicide climbing sky high, it is time to educate ourselves on how to help friends and family members (and even ourselves) when it feels like there is nowhere else to turn. 

In the United States, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death. In 2020, there were an estimated 1.20 million attempts. The problem is also growing in our population of youth, with suicide rates for children increasing a whopping 63 percent from 2010 to 2019. One way or another, suicide touches all our lives. Luckily, we have some tips for how to talk to an individual struggling with thoughts of suicide, and advice for what you can do to help a loved one. 

What is the right thing to say?

Many of us get hung up on saying the right thing during times of extreme emotional crisis. When a friend’s loved one passes away unexpectedly, for example, or they are experiencing a time of turbulence and heartache, it can be difficult to find words to help. When someone is feeling suicidal, we can find ourselves worrying that saying the wrong thing will make the situation worse. 

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s #RealConvo guide, if someone opens up to you about their mental health and divulges that they are considering suicide, consider this a positive thing. When someone reaches out for help, it is a sign that they trust you and that they are ready to seek care. Although you may feel pressured to say just the right thing, know that just by being there and listening, you are helping them immensely.

Some things to remember.

The most important thing to remember when helping a suicidal loved one is to stay calm. If you care about this person, you may be especially panicked to know that they are considering taking their own life. It is vital to remember that just because someone says they are having suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean they are in immediate danger. Calmly take time to listen to them and then ask some follow-up questions, such as:

  • “How often are you having these thoughts?”
  • “When it gets really bad, what do you do?”
  • “What scares you about these thoughts?”
  • “What do you need to do to feel safe?”

It is important to keep questions simple and without any indication of blame or judgment. The last thing you want to do when someone is in a vulnerable emotional position is to make them feel stupid, guilty, or wrong. Cultivate your most compassionate side and let them know that you are there to help, not to judge.

What to do next.

If the person you are talking to is not currently self-harming and doesn’t seem to be in immediate danger, it is best to gently ask what next step feels right to them. Ask them if they would rather speak to a therapist or their primary care doctor. Offer to sit with them while they phone a therapist or help them to wade through the difficulties of insurance to find a provider. Those who are in the throes of deep depression and suicide may feel exhausted and mentally unable to perform certain tasks, like searching for a provider online. Take things slow and be patient, helpful, and gentle. Remind them that seeking help does not show weakness but instead proves their immense strength. 

If you are with someone who does seem to be in immediate danger, stay with them. Help them to remove any lethal items from the house. Encourage them to seek help from their doctor or therapist. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to speak to a trained crisis counselor from the CrisisTextLine. Unless you are a trained therapist, it is vital to reach out to a professional who can help.

Suicide Prevention Month aims to increase awareness of suicide and what we can do to help those who find themselves stuck in its clutches. Remember that staying calm and listening without judgment are great ways to support someone who is opening up to you about their mental and emotional struggles. Most importantly, help your loved one to remember they are not alone, and be there for them as much as you safely can be. 

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