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To Help Someone Contemplating Suicide, Put Yourself First

Why self-care is the key to supporting people at risk of taking their own lives.

Key points

  • More than half of all adults say they know of someone who has had suicidal thoughts.
  • Providing care for someone who is thinking about suicide presents different challenges compared with other forms of caregiving.
  • While there are many resources available help someone who is thinking about suicide, supports for the people providing them care are lacking.

The following is a guest post by Johanna Louie, LMSW, Co-Founder of Suicide Is Different.

Have you ever worried that someone you care about is considering suicide? If so, you're not alone. A 2020 Harris Poll conducted with several leading suicide prevention agencies found that 55% of adults knew of someone who has had suicidal thoughts, while 24% reported having personally thought about suicide or attempted to take their own life in 2018. Many of these individuals may themselves have been suicide caregivers—individuals directly supporting someone struggling with suicidal thoughts.

We don't know the exact number of suicide caregivers out there. But we do know that they're critical in efforts to reduce suicide deaths. Having greater social supports in place is associated with a lower likelihood of lifetime suicide attempts. From a parent taking their child to weekly therapy sessions to a friend talking through the hardships of job loss, the supportive roles that a person can play in the life of a person considering suicide vary widely. Every interaction and relationship can help strengthen a person’s support network. Given the importance of community and social connections in suicide prevention, education and support for those providing such connection and care are all the more necessary.

Providing care for someone thinking about suicide presents different challenges compared with other forms of caregiving. For starters, suicide is a difficult topic to discuss due to its attached shame and stigma in society. Not being able to discuss one's role and challenges as a suicide caregiver can increase stress and isolation. Additionally, many helpers identify as family and friends hearing someone out, rather than as formal caregivers, leading them to underestimate the toll the emotional support they offer may take on them—as well as how much support they themselves need. Furthermore, suicide support tasks are typically added onto daily responsibilities as caregivers learn to navigate a new normal with suicide as part of life. All these stressors can contribute to a caregiver’s compassion fatigue—the physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion related to caring for others who are in significant emotional pain.

With a simple Google search, plenty of resources can be found to help someone who is thinking about suicide. However, there is a lack of support that focuses on the suicide caregiver’s own needs based on the unique challenges they face. Studies have shown that caregivers of seriously ill patients are more effective when receiving education on how to support their loved ones as well as emotional supports to focus on their own wellness. It's not too much of a jump to imagine the same holds for suicide caregivers.

Focusing on self-care is equally as important as learning the intervention skills to support someone at risk. Let’s take a look at what it means to build a self-care toolkit as a suicide caregiver.

Put Yourself First

Recognize that self-care isn’t limited to spa treatments for relaxation or watching movies for escapism. Forming habits to monitor your own wellness and knowing what signs to look out for when stress is building up sets a foundation. Plan ahead for emergencies, and know your own support networks and coping strategies to fall back on as stress accumulates. Suicide caregiving can be a long-term commitment, and it’s important to move forward knowing who and what your reinforcements are.

Understand Your Caregiver Role

Identifying as a suicide caregiver and understanding what that entails allow for reflection and forward planning. During this time, you may experience feelings of grief based on the changes in your relationship with the person you are supporting and it’s important to be able to process that. Knowing what your caregiver role is allows for anticipation of what may be asked of you. Planning ahead for support allows you to know where to turn when you are no longer in a position to help and ensures that the person you are caring for has sustainable support.

Know Your Limits

Difficult conversations and emotions will likely come up in the process of suicide caregiving as relationships between you and the person thinking about suicide are shifting. While it may not seem like self-care, learning how to talk about those challenges directly is beneficial to the wellness of all parties involved. It’s also important for you to be aware of your own limits so that both you and the person you are supporting can communicate your respective boundaries. Creating channels for open communication can ensure that both of your needs are met.

Most suicide caregivers have the best of intentions and prioritize doing all that is asked of them to help. It’s easy to focus entirely on the person who is thinking about suicide. We encourage you to take a step back, make sure you are taking care of yourself, and know that preserving your own wellness will ultimately allow you to be the most productive and sustainable support.

Visit SuicideIsDifferent for details on the supports mentioned in this post. Follow us on Twitter (@SuicideIsDiff) and Instagram (@SuicideIsDifferentOrg) for routine reminders and tips!

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