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Recognizing Suicidality in Friends & Family

It is one of the most helpless and overwhelming experiences: someone close to you having thoughts of ending their life. You might be at a loss as to why. They seem to have a great life, they have made it through worse, or you experienced something “just as bad” yourself and made it throughNone of it makes sense. You may not feel ready or equipped to respond when someone shares something like this with you.

Questions you may ask yourself when someone expresses that they are suicidal:
  • What do I say?
  • How do I respond?
  • Who do I call?
  • What if they are bluffing?
  • What if they follow through?

You can start by taking stock of the fact that they have trusted you enough to share something so painful and personal. If someone is talking about their suicidal thoughts or tendencies, it means that there is likely some ambivalence or indecision about it, which is a good thing! However, it can be extremely hard and scary for someone on the outside who wants so desperately to help.

Active Versus Passive suicidal thoughts

One thing to keep in mind is the difference between active versus passive suicidality. All suicidal communication (ex: directly stating that they want to die, bleak social media posts, etc) should be taken seriously, but there is a continuum of severity that you should be aware of as a supporter. It may also help you calm your own nerves! Passive suicidality refers to more vague and not specific things a person might say or do that indicates suicidal thoughts. This might look like some dark humor jokes involving wishing they wouldn’t wake up tomorrow, or saying that they don’t like their own lives. These thoughts need to be processed, but they don’t necessarily spell out immediate danger for the person. That passive to active line is crossed when a person has thoughts of ending their own life, a plan, access to the means, and an INTENT of carrying it out. This is dangerous and needs immediate intervention. An example of this could be a friend confiding to you that they plan to overdose on their medication this evening, could you take their pets? A person giving away their possessions can be a BIG sign of concern. If a person is actively suicidal, you can always call the police, a local crisis number, or sit with them while they call a suicide hotline. Here are some resources:

  • Lawrence County Crisis Line: 724-652-9000
  • Mercer County Crisis Line: 724-662-2227 
  • The Crisis Text Line can be accessed by texting HOME to 741741 
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 

Myths About Suicide  

Another thing that can help make talking about suicidality with a loved one less scary is debunking some of the commonly held myths about suicide. Here are some commonly held beliefs that are simply not true or misguided: 

  • Talking about suicide makes people do it
  • If they really wanted to, they would have already
  • They’re just doing this for attention
  • They are XYZ (happy, have a good job, a good relationship, etc) and therefore can’t be suicidal
  • They will just always be this way
  • They always say this, so they won’t do it
  • They attempted once, they won’t do it again because they’ve learned their lesson 

Some of these myths are particularly problematic. Research shows that processing suicidal thoughts can be instrumental in helping not to act on them. Furthermore, if a person has multiple attempts, they often become more lethal and dangerous with each subsequent attempt. So it is best not to make assumptions about what someone will or won’t do. 

Warning Signs of Suicidal Intent 
  • Talking about death/hurting self
  • Bleak social media posts
  • Giving away possessions or pets
  • Sudden changes in personality
  • Quitting things they used to like 

What You Can Do 

The best thing you can do for someone that is expressing the thought or desire to end their life is listen to them without judgment. Try your best to hear them out without shutting them down and then link them up with ongoing support via professional counseling, or immediate assistance if they are actively suicidal. Sometimes suicidal thoughts pass and never turn in to actions, but other times they progress. Any thought or expression should be taken seriously. However, do not provide support to your own detriment.

A Note On Manipulation

While every suicide threat should be taken seriously, do not allow yourself to be manipulated. What is meant by this? The most concrete example is when someone is attempting to leave an abusive relationship and the toxic partner says: “If you leave, I will harm/kill myself.” These may or may not be empty threats, but the point is that you should absolutely call appropriate authorities if someone is in immediate danger/encourage them to get help, but NOT stay in a situation at your own expense. If you are in danger or in a toxic situation, you cannot live your life under someone else’s thumb. If you feel like you’ve been doing just that or need to work through being manipulated in the past by a similar situation as described above, there is help available. Make an appointment with Angelus today. No one should hold their life over your head.

Pay Attention to Your Mental Health 

A well-meaning person may be looking to you for support, but unintentionally wearing you out. This might look like someone seeking support from you daily and it really adding to your stress levels. Whether you are a mental health professional or not, it is NOT appropriate for you to treat a friend or family member. Your own mental health may become negatively affected. If this is happening, there may need to be an increased focus on developing healthy boundaries. You might suggest other means of getting support (like seeing a counselor if they aren’t already, joining a support group, reading helpful books, getting support online). You can care deeply about someone and the pain that they are in, but that doesn’t mean losing sight of your own wellbeing in the process. Make sure to tune into your own needs while being a support for someone else. 

Being Supportive 

Another way to support suicide prevention is to participate in or donate to an Out of the Darkness Community Walk, which is founded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and occurs nationwide, run by smaller chapters. Their goal is to reduce the suicide rate by 20% over the next few yearsThat translates in MANY lives being saved and many friends and family that will not have to endure the loss of a loved one.  You can participate and walk for yourself, in support of someone else who may have thought about, attempted or completed suicide, or simply walk to support the cause. Lawrence County’s Out of the Darkness walk is scheduled for 9/14/2019 at Riverside Park. Learn more about it here.  If you would like to help Angelus Therapeutic Services reach our donation goal, please click here.We will be participating in this year’s walk and hope to see you there.

Never stop learning

Blogs:
Websites:
Phone Numbers:
  • Lawrence County Crisis Line: 724-652-9000
  • Mercer County Crisis Line: 724-662-2227
  • The Crisis Text Line can be accessed by texting HOME to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services

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