Helping those facing suicidal thoughts

Jackie Block, LMFT, LCSW, Psychotherapy

Jackie Block, LMFT, LCSW, Psychotherapy

St. Agnes Hospital Behavioral Health Services

I often get asked in my role what someone should do if they suspect someone that they know could be suicidal. What should they do or say to that person? What is the right thing to do or say and what is the wrong thing to do or say? Since this is such a sensitive topic (and some people may avoid doing anything because they don't know what to do), it would be good to offer some tips on what to do.

Most of us do not know how to respond to someone who could be suicidal. Generally our first reaction is one of panic and fear. “Oh no, what am I supposed to do now?” And there is often a strong desire to avoid talking about it!

Yet, when you encounter a person in distress, one of the most important things to do is simply ask them, “Are you thinking about suicide?” This will let them know you are interested and willing to talk to them about this topic. Asking does not put the idea in their head and often is a relief for the other person knowing someone is interested in listening.

Asking in a direct, neutral manner can open the door for real discussion about their emotional pain and can allow planning for the next steps to be taken. Other helpful questions to ask include, “How do you hurt?” and “How can I help?”

Of course, having asked these questions, it is now important to listen in a non-judgmental fashion. Let them tell their story, support them and take them seriously. If they admit they are having thoughts of suicide, try to find out their reasons for being in such emotional pain. As you listen, pay attention to any expression for wanting to continue staying alive. Try to help focus their attention on their reasons for living and avoid trying to impose your reasons for them to stay alive. Ask them what they have done in the past to cope with and distract themselves from thoughts of dying and what they can now. Try to instill hope in them by helping them see they have successfully dealt with these thoughts in the past. Also ask them if they have developed a plan and do what you can to keep them safe. 

Take away firearms and or medications that might be available telling them they can have them back after the crisis is over. Do not promise to keep their thoughts of suicide a secret and find others who can help. In addition to identifying other supportive people in their life, help them connect with other resources such as the Fond du Lac County Crisis Line: (920) 929-3535, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or the HOPELINE (national text line): text TALK to 741741. You could also encourage the individual to go to the hospital, call their primary care provider, talk with a school counselor or pastor, or call a mental health clinic.

Don’t forget to follow-up with the individual within a few days of the crisis and check in to see how they are doing; let them know you care about them. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/csifdl.

Learn more about Agnesian Behavioral Health Services at https://www.agnesian.com/services/behavioral-health-services.

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