TW- Discussions about suicide, depression and anxiety.
“Nothing in my life has ever made me want to commit suicide more than people’s reaction to my trying to commit suicide.”
― Emilie Autumn,
There’s advice out there on how to be supportive to a friend or a lover who is struggling with the desire to die by suicide. Problem is, these are often written by people who are professionals who may or may not have ever experienced those feelings themselves and some of their advice can be actively harmful. As someone who has been suicidal and has counseled people through some of the darkest places of their lives, I wanted to offer up this guide from my personal experience on how best to care for loved ones who want to die.
I hope you never have to use it but if you do, I hope it’s useful.
-Know your own limits: It’s really tempting to want to offer everything to someone you love who is suicidal, but you have got to put on your own oxygen mask first. One of the best things I learned from medic training is — don’t create another victim — which means not ignoring your own needs in order to take care of someone else.
-Don’t make idle promises: When a friend is struggling, the first instinct is to communicate a promise to hang out more often or check in every day. The problem is, your suicidal friend might cling to that promise and feel especially betrayed when you can’t be present. It is better to be honest with your capacity to do emotional labor. If someone you know is struggling says “do you have a minute?” and you cannot at that moment, give them a clear time frame of when you can and then follow through. Consistency is powerful in moments when you feel terribly alone.
-Don’t call the police: The police will inevitably cause more trauma to the person than act as a helpful resource. They often escalate the situation and are especially traumatic for at risk populations like sex workers, trans people, and people of color. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck on your own dealing with a crisis. Many cities have a crisis intervention unit or mental health crisis team that you can call for assistance. Alternatively, local fire departments can provide aid and can alert EMT units instead of the police. Cops almost always make a difficult situation much worse.
– Don’t say any of the following: “But you have so much to live for!” “But you’d hurt so many people!” “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem!” “You don’t have THAT many problems.” “But you’re so STRONG.” “Have you thought about getting help?” “Your whole life is ahead of you!” “You’re being melodramatic and you just want attention”. These statements are belittling and patronizing and they are all things that non-suicidal people think will be helpful, but it often centers their feelings and experiences instead of centering the feelings of their struggling friend. Here’s a great post that breaks down why these things are all bad ideas.
What could you say instead? Well, for me, the kindest thing someone said was “I trust you to do what’s right for you.” Highlighting their agency is incredibly vital, and centering their needs. Let them feel suicidal, because it’s better, I believe, to be honest than to try to hide how you feel until you become trapped and desperate.
-Give your loved one options: Ask them if they want advice, or sympathy, or for you to just listen. Respect what they tell you. If they want advice or help, offer them options there too- I typically like to offer some professional help options, some self-care options, some physical activities and something involving food. Knowing that you’re not going to drag them kicking and screaming to the ER is really helpful during what is already a scary time.
-Be an advocate if you go to the hospital or clinic with them: Without an advocate, it can be easy for a suicidal person’s desires and agency to be dismissed or ignored, which doesn’t help when they’re already feeling out of control. Ask the clinic if they do involuntary hospitalization and advocate against that action so your loved one can walk out if they need to. Their safety is the top concern, and forcing them to stay somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t going to help.
-Check in on them: I’ve found that often when someone is feeling suicidal, they get swamped with offers of help and social time for about a week or two. Because so many people are volunteering, the person then feels overwhelmed and agrees to a couple of things, figuring they can follow up on the rest later. As the weeks go by, fewer people reach out, and it becomes easier to fall back into isolation and depression. By either working with friends to create a care schedule, or checking in every week or so, you’re providing a consistency that is stabilizing. It doesn’t have to be an in-person meet; you can Facetime, text or use a platform you are comfortable with. Just remind your loved one that you’re still there.
-Volunteer practical and specific help: People struggling with mental illness often have difficulty with daily tasks like cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry and changing sheets. These are all things that tend to fall by the wayside when someone is suicidal. Letting those things go leads to feeling overwhelmed when they finally try to tackle the chores. If you volunteer cooking food, cleaning dishes or doing a load of laundry, you can make it easier for your friend to say yes to something they could actually use. That not only helps in the short term, but in the long run as well.
-With the suicidal person’s permission, talk to other friends about the situation: It’s important to get consent before talking about someone else’s struggle. That said, many hands make light work and the more community members you can share a care schedule with, the more likely you can weave together a safe landing place for your loved one. This will also allow you to get the help you need without asking for emotional labor from the person already barely staying together. The ring theory is a great concept to explore.
-Take care of yourself: Like I said at the beginning of the list – make sure you’re taking time for yourself as well, because if you’re not in good form, you will not be capable of being as supportive to someone else. Take a bubble bath, watch a show you love, eat ice cream, pet cats, whatever you do to recharge your batteries. Self-care is taking care of someone in need too. <3