I am posting this piece with as much tenderness as I can convey online. Suicide is an enormously difficult topic. Today I feel led to speak into this tragic phenomenon outside the walls of my clinical practice by addressing three of the questions I am most frequently asked by concerned parents, spouses, children, friends, pastors, and teachers when it comes to helping a loved one cope with suicidal thoughts.
1) What do I do?
If you are the one who is struggling with thoughts of ending your life…reach out for help immediately, don’t wait. There is hope, I have personally seen hope prevail in people’s lives in the midst of and on the other side of suicidal thoughts. Hold on to Hope.
- Call the National Suicide Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), text the Crisis Text Line (741741), call 911, or get to the nearest emergency room.
- Contact a friend, family member, counselor, teacher, or pastor.
- Remove yourself from the physical setting where you would consider ending your life and don’t re-enter it alone.
If you are concerned about a loved one…
- Take all suicidal thoughts seriously. (Don’t try to determine the seriousness of the threat on your own, unless you are a licensed mental health professional trained in suicide intervention).
- Get him or her to help immediately, don’t leave them alone until they are in a safe place.
- Don’t keep it a secret. They may not want anyone else to know, but disclose the information only as far as needed in order to get the person help (e.g., if you’re a teen and it’s your friend who is struggling, you need to tell you parents so that they can tell your friend’s parents). If the person gets upset with you for telling, remember that it’s better for them to be upset with you and still alive.
- If your loved one is under the care of a mental health professional, then support your loved one with your presence, availability, specific words of encouragement, and thoughtful gestures. Recognize that the professional is responsible for treatment of suicidal thoughts, take direction from him or her.
- Love your loved one well. Call and text them to check in, make plans with them, include them in what you’re doing, offer to help them with practical tasks.
- Extend grace and understanding to them when they are unable to function at their full-capacity. Some things (like school and work) may need to be set aside temporarily so that he or she can recover. Support them in this and don’t criticize them for what they are unable to accomplish right now.
- If you live with a person who is dealing with suicidal thoughts, remove any and all items that could be utilized for harm. Guns need to be stored off-site in a location unknown to the struggling individual until the mental health crisis has passed.
- Be sensitive to increased times of risk for suicidal thoughts: around the anniversaries of deaths, traumas, or other losses; after the suicide of someone near to them or admired by them; and during times of stress, change, or transition.
- Don’t take the presence of their suicidal thoughts personally. Their struggles are not an indication of the quality of your parenting or friendship.
2) What do I say?
Understandably, people often do not know what to say to their loved ones in situations where someone does not want to live anymore.
- Recognize that helping someone who wants to end their life is scary. Fear can come across as anger. An individual struggling with suicidal thoughts will be very sensitive to your tone and nonverbal communication. Get support yourself so that your fear does not come across in unintended ways to the person in crisis. Make sure to clarify that you feel scared about the situation, but not angry with them.
- Listen to their pain and acknowledge their experience while offering alternative ways of coping, if they are open to suggestions from you.
- Respect their boundaries. If they don’t want you to offer solutions for their struggles, then be present with them in the midst of their struggles.
- Remember that people struggling with suicidal thoughts are in a mental health crisis. What seems logical to you, may not be to them. They don’t see things the same way you do. Be patient and loving with them.
- Tell them specifically how much they mean to you, what you love and like about them, and the positive qualities they bring to your life.
- If your loved one notices that their struggles are having a negative impact on you or seem burdensome to you, address that directly. Tell them specifically that they are wanted and valued in your life and are not a burden or an inconvenience to you. Verbalize how devastated you would be without them in your life.
- Speak to them in ways that help them separate their struggles from their identity. Remind them often of their God-given identity.
- Don’t say anything suggesting that their suicidal thoughts are due to a lack of faith or are an indication of sin in their lives. Just don’t, it’s better to say nothing.
3) How do I pray?
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to even begin in prayer for someone struggling with not wanting to live. Here are some suggestions:
- Pray for their life to be preserved, for them to have a desire to live and the energy to fight for healing and freedom.
- Pray for feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness to leave their mind.
- Pray for sensitivity to their struggles, for wisdom to speak words that help and not hurt.
- Pray that they would feel loved and wanted by those closest to them, that they would not feel like a burden or inconvenience to others.
- Pray that they would reach out for help when needed and not try to battle this alone.
- Pray for the lies that they believe about themselves to be revealed and replaced with truth.
- Pray for a knowledge of their true, God-given identity and that they would not draw any identity from their pain.
- Pray for access to and availability of treatment resources.
- Pray that they would have an increased sense of God’s presence in their lives, especially in their darkest thoughts and feelings.
- Pray that they would not have access to any means for ending their life.
- Pray for strong physical, emotional, social, and spiritual support around them.
- Pray for them to see God as their unending stability in the midst of unstable thoughts and feelings.
Despite all of our best efforts and faithful prayers, the unfortunate reality is that some people will end their own lives. We pray not, but statistics and experience tell us this is real. Just because someone has ended their own life, does not mean that their loved ones did not do everything in their power to keep them alive. Some things are not in our control and other people’s choices are one of them. The aftermath of a death by suicide is a tragedy beyond comprehension. If you are in this situation, I am deeply sorry for your loss and I hope you will seek out support for yourself.
May the grace and peace of God be with you all as you journey on this unchosen path.
*****Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individual psychological assessment or treatment by Dr. Ann Caballero.