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5 To-Dos When Someone Says "I'm Suicidal"

What to do when you're not sure what to do.

The title is a bit misleading. It's not often that someone will come out and say, "I'm suicidal." But, if you've heard, "I can't go on," "I hate my life," or "There's no point" from someone you care about, you know that it's incredibly hard to know what to say next.

Following my last two posts on suicide prevention on college campuses, a friend wrote to me and shared that as a professor, he'd had a student disclose suicidal ideation. I can't tell you how many friends and colleagues have shared their fears about doing the right thing when a student — or friend, or family member - had expressed suicidality.

To offer some guidance, I put together the following tips. Yes, the context for these tips is suicide prevention. But, these are good things to keep in mind when talking with anyone about a difficult experience (depression, abuse, death or other loss):

  1. Listen. I know it sounds simple, but it's profoundly true. You may be the first person they've told, or you may be the tenth. You might be the first to truly listen.
  2. Be supportive, not dismissive. It's easier to think, "I have a lot on my plate right now and I can't take on a suicidal person" than to sit with a person and their feelings. But, your support is crucially important. Believe anyone who says that they are thinking about suicide and let them know that you care about them.
  3. Know your limits. At the same time, if you are not a clinician, don't try to be a clinician. You don't need any special knowledge to be supportive, but know when it would be good to connect with someone trained to work more comprehensively with suicidal individuals. If you are talking with someone who has specific ideas about how they would end their life, connect them with a crisis center or clinician.
  4. Know your resources. If nothing else, know the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1.800.273.8255). The Lifeline can be a resource for you, or for someone expressing suicidal thoughts. The Lifeline can also connect you to local crisis resources. If you're on a campus, know how to connect with the counseling center.
  5. Get support — don't do it alone. Clinicians get supervision because the things they hear are extremely difficult, and sometimes talking about it can relieve some of the burden of hearing it. So, if you talk with someone about their suicidal thinking, it's important for you to talk to someone else. Ideally, that person has some experience dealing with challenging topics, so that they can be supportive of you.

It's a brave thing to talk to someone about suicidal thinking — it's brave for the person saying that they're thinking about ending their life, and it's brave for the person who's listening to them share such deeply personal thoughts. Listening and support are just the first steps, but vitally important to preventing suicide.

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved