If you know someone who is experiencing depression and may be considering suicide, simply talking and listening are some of the most important things you can do to support them. Do not take on the role of therapist. Often, people just need someone to listen. Although this might be difficult, there are some approaches that have worked for others.
Express empathy and concern
Severe depression is usually accompanied by a self-absorbed, uncommunicative, withdrawn state of mind. When you try to help, you may be met by your loved one’s reluctance to discuss what they are feeling. At such times, it’s important to acknowledge the reality of the pain and hopelessness they are experiencing. Resist the urge to function as a therapist. This can ultimately create more feelings of rejection for the person, who doesn’t want to be told what to do. Remain a supportive friend and encourage continued treatment.
Talk about suicide
Talking about suicide does not plant the idea in someone’s head. Your ability to explore the feelings, thoughts, and reactions associated with depression can provide valuable perspective and reassurance to your friend or loved one who may be experiencing depression. Not everyone who thinks of suicide attempts it. For many, it’s a passing thought that lessens over time. For a significant number of people, however, the hopelessness and exaggerated anxiety brought on by untreated or under-treated depression may create suicidal thoughts that they can’t easily manage on their own. For this reason, take any mention of suicide seriously.
If someone you know is very close to suicide, direct questions about how, when, and where they intend to end their life can provide valuable information that might help prevent the attempt. Don’t promise confidentiality in these circumstances. It’s important for you to share this information with the individual’s doctor or a crisis response team.
Describe specific behaviors and events that trouble you
If you can explain to your loved one the particular ways their behavior has changed, this might help to get communication started. Compounding the lack of interest in communication may be guilt or shame for having suicidal thoughts. Try to help them overcome feelings of guilt. If there has already been a suicide attempt, guilt and shame over the attempt can make the problem worse. It’s important to reassure the individual that there’s nothing shameful about what they are thinking and feeling. Keep stressing that thoughts of hopelessness, guilt, and even suicide are all symptoms of a treatable, medical condition. Reinforce the good work they’ve done in keeping with their treatment plan.
Work with professionals
Never promise confidentiality if you believe someone is very close to suicide. Keep the person’s doctor or therapist informed of any thoughts of suicide. If possible, encourage them to discuss it with their doctor(s) themselves, but be ready to confirm that those discussions have taken place. This may involve making an appointment to visit the doctor together or calling the doctor on your own. Be aware that a doctor will not be able to discuss the person’s condition with you. You should only call to inform the doctor of your concern.
Whenever possible, you should get permission from your loved one to call their doctor if you feel there’s a problem. Otherwise, it could be viewed negatively and may worsen the symptoms or cause added stress. Of course, if you believe there is a serious risk of immediate self-harm, call their doctor. You can work out any feelings of anger the person has towards you later.
Stress that the person’s life is important to you and to others
Many people find it awkward to put into words how another person’s life is important for their own well-being. Emphasize in specific terms to your friend or loved one how their suicide would devastate you and others. Share personal stories or pictures to help remind your loved one of the important events in life that you’ve shared together.
Be prepared for anger
The individual may express anger and feel betrayed by your attempt to prevent their suicide or help them get treatment. Be strong. Realize that these reactions are caused by the condition and should pass once the person receives proper treatment.
Always be supportive
People who have thought about or attempted suicide will most likely have feelings of guilt and shame. Be supportive and assure them that their actions were caused by symptoms that can be treated. Offer your continued support to help them recover.
Take care of yourself
It’s not uncommon for friends and family members to experience stress or symptoms of depression when trying to help someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts. You can only help by encouraging and supporting people through their own treatment. You cannot get better for them. Don’t focus all of your energy on the one person. Ask friends and family to join you in providing support and maintain your normal routine as much as possible. Pay attention to your own feelings and seek help if you need it.