This blog post discusses suicide, so please take care while reading or skip it altogether. If you or someone you know needs emergency emotional assistance, help is available. Call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Or, use Lifeline Chat for 24/7 free and confidential support.
Suicidal ideation, or thinking about suicide, is more common than you might think. As of 2021, more than 12 million American adults have experienced it. More than 3 million of those people made a suicide plan. Nearly 2 million of them attempted suicide.
These statistics are one reason it’s important to help loved ones struggling with their mental health. Even if you think they’d never harm themselves.
“It’s easy to downplay the risk and assume your loved one would never hurt themselves,” says Giselle Ku’uleimomi Alexander, LCSW, a licensed therapist and AbleTo program advisor. “But when someone’s in a crisis, their brain has a harder time problem-solving. They may start to think suicide is the only way to deal with difficult feelings and circumstances.”
Below, learn more about the most effective ways to support someone if they’re thinking about suicide.
7 Ways to Show Up for Loved Ones
Know the warning signs & risk factors
Knowing the warning signs of suicidal ideation can help you spot someone who’s struggling. The most common ones include:
- Frequently talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
- Making comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless
- Expressing that they have no reason to live or feel no sense of purpose in life. Saying things like, “It would be better if I wasn’t here.” Or, “I want out.”
- Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
- Withdrawing from family, friends, and community
- Engaging in reckless behavior or more risky activities, seemingly without thinking
- Displaying dramatic mood changes
- Talking about feeling trapped or being a burden to others
“These could also be signs that a loved one just needs extra support,” says Alexander. “Either way, it’s good to be aware in case you can help.”
Certain factors can increase a person’s chances of having suicidal thoughts. Being aware of these factors can help you spot someone who may be struggling. They include:
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
- A family history of suicide
- Substance use
- Pre-existing mental illness, especially if untreated
- Access to lethal means. For instance, keeping guns in the home or having access to unsecured prescription medications.
- Losses and other events. For instance, a breakup. A death. School failures. Work problems. Legal issues. Financial concerns.
- History of trauma or abuse
- Chronic physical illness, including chronic pain
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others
- Social isolation
- Historical trauma
- Stigma associated with seeking help
- Argument with a friend or parents
- Parents divorcing
Gentle, but direct, questions are best. “Let your loved one know you’ve noticed some changes,” says Alexander. “Ask how they’re doing. Ask how you can help.”
Some questions to ask include:
- Have you been thinking about hurting or killing yourself?
- Have you thought about how you would do that?
- Have you taken steps to follow through on that plan?
- Do you intend to follow through with your plan?
“People often worry that talking about suicide will cause someone to shut down,” says Alexander. But, being direct gives people an opening to honestly discuss what’s happening.”
It also doesn’t make someone more likely to act on their thoughts. In fact, research shows it may help reduce suicidal ideation.
Listen & respond without judgment
Opening up can feel vulnerable. If someone shares their struggle with you, try to listen and respond without judgment. Empathize without making the situation about you. And try to provide positive reinforcement.
You could say: “It sounds like things have been really tough. I can understand why you’re feeling this way. It takes a lot of courage to share these feelings.”
Offer practical support
Taking steps to get support can feel overwhelming. Let your loved one know you’re willing to help in practical ways, too. For example, you can offer to research therapists. Or, you can drive them to appointments.
“When you’re in a mental health crisis, everything can feel like too much,” says Alexander. “So these things can be a huge help.”
Help them make a safety plan
As mentioned, it’s tough to think clearly when you’re overwhelmed with emotions. A safety plan gives your loved one clear steps if they’re in crisis. Especially if they’re alone.
To create one, write down the answers to these questions:
- What are your warning signs?
- What activities can you do on your own to help distract you?
- Who can you call on for support or to distract you?
- What places do you find comforting or provide a good distraction?
- What can be done to make your environment safe? For instance, can you remove dangerous substances or weapons?
- What professionals can you contact for support? Include phone numbers for a local mental health crisis line or 988
Have your loved one save this list somewhere they can easily access it. On an index card that fits in their wallet, perhaps. Or, in their phone’s notes app.
Call for help, if needed
It can be hard to decide when it’s time to call for emergency support. But here are some best practices:
If your loved one has attempted suicide, call 911 immediately. “Even if they haven’t sustained a life-threatening injury, they can still benefit from being connected to a mental health provider,” says Alexander.
If your loved one is talking about suicide or acting in a way that makes you feel they’ll attempt it, again, call 911 or your local mental health crisis line.
Suicide should always be taken seriously. “Don’t try to address the issue on your own,” says Alexander. “Instead, provide support until your loved one is connected with a mental health provider.”
If your loved one is reluctant to seek immediate help, let them know it can be as easy as texting 988 or using the Lifeline Chat. And offer to stay with them for support.
Check in on them
If someone isn’t actively in crisis but you’re still concerned, check in on them daily, suggests Alexander. Ask what’s going on. Let them know you’re there to support them.
“Checking in helps you know if you need to take any other steps,” she says. “But it should never take the place of seeking professional help when necessary.”
What to do if someone isn’t ready to accept help
If you think someone is at risk of suicide, it’s best not to leave them until you have professional help. Try contacting your loved one’s doctor or therapist for advice.
If the provider determines that your loved one isn’t a danger to themselves, they might suggest other ways to support them.
If your loved one is acting in a way that makes you feel they might attempt suicide, call or text 988. You can also contact your local mental health crisis line, Lifeline, or 911.
Remember: None of us is on this journey alone. You play an important role in supporting people you care about. That said, professional help and emergency resources are often an important part of that support.
Take care of yourself, too
Tending to someone else’s mental health can take a toll on your own. Self-care practices, like meditating and deep breathing, become especially important. You can find these activities and more in your AbleTo app. If you need extra support, AbleTo coaches and therapists are also here to help as well.
By Ashley Abramson
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI.
Clinically reviewed by Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo.
Photo by Dragana991/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.