It can feel overwhelming and scary when a friend discloses they’re thinking about killing themselves. You want to help them, but you aren’t sure what to do. You may wonder if talking about suicide with them will only make it worse. Or you’re worried that you’ll say the wrong thing.
It’s common to feel uncertain about how to help a friend having suicidal thoughts and urges. For many people and communities, this isn't something you talk about. There's still stigma and discomfort surrounding both suicide and mental health.
But it's okay and important to talk about it.
Honest and supportive conversations with a friend can help remind them that they aren't alone and connect them to life-saving resources. Let's look at what you can do to provide that support.
7 Ways to Help a Friend Having Suicidal Thoughts
Recognize the warning signs
The ability to spot red flags helps you know when your friend may need help. Below are warning signs that signal high risk for suicide. If you notice any of these, make sure they are connected to immediate professional support.
- Saying goodbyes to their friends or loved ones
- Giving away their possessions
- Focusing on death and dying
- Statements about dying, leaving, or being a burden:
- --"You won't have to deal with me much longer."
- --"I won't be a problem for long."
- --"If something happens, I want you to know…"
- --"It'd be easier if I died."
- Engaging in more frequent or severe forms of self-injury
- Posting on social media, talking, or writing about wanting to kill themselves or die
The following are additional warning signs for suicide:
- Becoming suddenly happy after a period of depression
- Sharing that they feel hopeless or worthless
- Becoming irritable or agitated
- Unexplained stomach aches or headaches
- Extreme tiredness
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Neglecting their appearance
- Withdrawing from their friends or loved ones
- Stopping participation in activities they once enjoyed
- Missing school or work
Be a safe person to talk to
Suicidal ideation and depression can often feel isolating. However, simply knowing that there is someone who cares and will listen can make a big difference. When talking to someone who's struggling with thoughts of killing themselves:
Be present with them - Spend time with your friend and give them the space to share their feelings and experiences. Remind them that you care and they aren't alone.
Validate their feelings - Listen to your friend and try to understand what they’re going through. Repeat back to them in your own words what they said to you. For example, you might say, "you've felt lonely lately," or "you're feeling really sad and overwhelmed."
Don’t minimize - People often dismiss other people’s emotions and experiences when they feel uncomfortable. Suicide generates a similar reaction. However, to support someone, you don’t want to minimize their feelings. Avoid statements, such as “it’s not that bad,” “you’re being dramatic,” “you should be happy,” or “it could be worse.”
Be direct - It’s a common misconception that asking someone if they're suicidal will make them more likely to kill themselves. Talking directly about suicide, doesn’t make a person more suicidal. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about, but it's crucial to speak openly about suicidal ideation. That way you can identify warning signs and connect your friend to the help that they need.
Check on them - If you know your friend is struggling, check on them periodically. Let them know that you're thinking of them. Knowing that there's someone who cares, can help them feel less like a burden.
Encourage them to get help
Even though you care deeply for your friend and want to help, you can't fix this for them. You also can't be their only support. That's too much for just one person. Suicidal ideation requires support from a trained healthcare professional. You can help your friend by encouraging them to speak with a counselor, crisis line, or trusted adult.
The lifelines below provide support to those struggling with suicidal thoughts. Individuals can access them 24/7 for free. Provide your friend with the resource list and encourage them to use them when they need help.
- Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - Call or text 988.
- Crisis Text Line - Text HOME to 741-741.
- TrevorLifeline - Text START to 678-678 or call 866-488-7386. This lifeline is dedicated to helping LGBTQ teens and young adults.
Reach out for help
It’s important to take immediate action if you notice any of the high-risk warning signs. If your friend is under 18 years old, reach out to a safe adult for help. This could be their parent/guardian, your parent/guardian, or a school counselor. Even if your friend asks you to keep it a secret, you need to tell at least one trusted adult for their safety. Let them know that you need to do this to make sure they are safe. If they want to be the one to tell the adult, you can offer to accompany them. That way you know for sure that an adult knows and they're getting help.
If your friend is over 18 years old, encourage them to go to the emergency room. If they won't go to the emergency room, you can do an internet search for the "mobile crisis response team" in your area. These teams will go directly to your friend to assess their safety and provide support. For college students, most campuses have a crisis team that will provide support. You can contact your housing RA, campus counseling center, or the Dean of Students Office for help.
Take care of yourself
Supporting a friend dealing with suicidal ideation can leave you feeling drained. You may feel stressed during the conversation and then worry about them afterward. Take time to destress and care for your well-being. This can be as simple as doing an activity to move your body, such as shaking out each body part or going for a walk. It may also look like engaging in an activity that you enjoy or re-energizes you (e.g. listening to music, hanging out with friends, or playing basketball).
Fight stigma around suicide
Ending the stigma surrounding suicide in our communities helps us all. You can do your part by:
- Sharing what you know about warning signs.
- Being mindful of how you talk about suicide. Avoid making jokes about people killing themselves or judging those who struggle with suicidal ideation.
- Raising awareness about suicide prevention and resources in your school or workplace.
Handspring Health is here to support you. We believe in making quality therapy accessible. Our team of therapists provide evidence-based mental healthcare for youth and young adults. Schedule a free consultation today.
John Hopkins Medicine "Teen Suicide." 2019. Accessed September 23, 2022.