It’s a fear so intense and unthinkable that we often avoid even speaking about it as a society– the fear that someone you love will be in so much emotional distress that they take their own life. Even talking about it can feel like a taboo, like you might bring it on just by mentioning the idea of it. However, avoidance doesn’t help the situation. The CDC reports that deaths by suicide reached a record high in 2022, and that millions of Americans think seriously about killing themselves each year.
One of the worst things about deaths by suicide is that in many cases, proper support and treatment can prevent them. If someone you love is experiencing depression or other mental health struggles, the fear that they might hurt themselves can be overwhelming, and you can feel at a loss for what to do to help them. Being aware of the steps to take can help you to help them! Here’s what you need to know.
When In Doubt, Get Help
If you have any concerns that a person you know and love is in imminent danger of hurting themselves, you should call 911 or a similar emergency number right away. You may feel guilty about getting the authorities involved, but it’s better to overreact than underreact when you’re worried about someone with suicidal ideation. Ensure that the person is not left alone, and follow up with them in the days to reassure them that you’re still there and you still care. If you know one thing about helping someone who is suicidal, it should be that safety is paramount at all times, both theirs and your own. If you ever start to feel that you can’t do anything to help them or prevent them from taking action, you should seek out emergency help immediately.
What is Suicidal Ideation?
The first thing to know is what suicidal ideation specifically is, and how its two types differ from each other. Passive suicidal ideation and active suicidal ideation are the two terms you need to be familiar with. Passive suicidal ideation describes thoughts and feelings of harming oneself or wanting to be dead that a person might have but have no plan to act on. Thoughts like “I’d just be better off dead” or not caring whether you live or die are indicative of passive suicidal ideation. Active suicidal ideation involves these same thoughts and feelings, but a specific plan for a way to take one’s own life.
It’s important not to view passive suicidal ideation as less serious or dangerous, as it can turn from thought to action quickly. Both passive and active suicidal ideation require immediate attention and support, and any warning signs you see should be taken very seriously.
Know the Signs
The warning signs that you need to look out for can sometimes be subtle or easy to miss, but if you notice them, it’s not something to be ignored or laughed off. People with suicidal ideation often:
- Withdraw from their loved ones
- Stop participating in things they used to love
- Give away possessions or money
- Engage in risky behaviors like reckless driving or unsafe sex
- Show extreme or unusual emotions like anxiety, nervousness, or anger
- Say goodbye to people
- Talk often about death or how the world would be better without them
It’s also not unusual for a person with suicidal ideation to suddenly begin acting very happy, positive, and carefree. This may be a relief to people who love them, but is sometimes a sign that they’ve slipped into active suicidal ideation and are enjoying the feeling that their problems will be over soon because they’ll be gone. If you notice a sudden shift to this display of happiness in someone who’s struggling with their mental health, it’s another sign that they might need help.
Avoid Judgment or Guilt
When you talk to someone about their suicidal ideation, it’s important to do your best to keep control of your own emotions and avoid judging them. You may feel angry, sad, hurt, or betrayed that this person you care about would consider doing such a terrible thing to themselves, but expressing these feelings in this moment will only make them feel worse. Make the focus about them and how they’re feeling.
Avoid trying to use guilt to convince them not to hurt themselves. Saying things like “I’ll be so miserable if you’re not here” may seem like effective tactics to get them to change their minds, but trying to use guilt to keep a suicidal person from hurting themselves is like trying to put out a fire with fire. Guilt is often a contributing factor to their suicidal ideation, and adding more guilt will only exacerbate those feelings. Instead, be calm, compassionate, and understanding. Try to see where they’re coming from, and make it clear that you understand their pain while reaffirming that suicide is not the answer, and you want to help them find another way to make the emotional hurting stop.
Directing a person with suicidal ideation towards professional help and resources should be a big priority for you. As much as you love them and want to help and support them, they can and should be receiving a large part of their support from people who are trained in treating suicidal ideation. This doesn’t mean that you’re trying to pass them off to someone else or that you don’t want to deal with them– it’s recognizing the limits of the help you’re able to provide them, and guiding them towards more help that they need. Therapy, medications, suicide hotlines, and lifestyle changes can all be key in helping a person who’s feeling this way turn things around, and gently encouraging them to use these resources and offering to help them find doctors or therapists can be a huge help. The National Suicide Hotline can now be reached by dialing 988.
Suicide is an unbelievably sad and scary topic, but by talking about it and bringing it out of the shadows, we can all hope to prevent it from happening! If you or someone you love is suffering from thoughts of suicide or self harm, don’t hesitate to call 988 for the National Suicide Hotline. If you’re interested in seeking out treatment for depression and other mental health problems, you can contact us for more information.