There are a variety of reasons why you might suspect that someone you know might be thinking of suicide – perhaps they’ve been withdrawn, abusing substances, not taking care of themselves, or expressing hopelessness. Whatever the reason, fearing that someone you care about could be considering ending their life likely leaves you feeling afraid, lost, and overwhelmed. Most people are afraid to ask about suicide for fear of saying the wrong thing, or that they won’t be equipped to help if their hunch is correct and this person has been thinking about suicide. These are normal fears to have, but remember that asking someone about suicide won’t cause someone to become suicidal who wasn’t already.
Sometimes, simply having someone to confide in about this difficult, taboo topic can be incredibly valuable to the person thinking of suicide. It’s always safer when the suicidal person doesn’t have to carry this burden alone - they may have even just been waiting for someone to ask. Once you know they need help, you can help connect them with lifesaving professional support in order to keep them safe. Here are some tips for supporting someone who may be dealing with suicide.
The first thing you need to do, despite how awkward or unnatural it may feel, is to ask
Without avoiding the word suicide, ask if they are thinking about killing themselves. Being open about the topic rather than skirting around it creates a safe space for someone to talk about what’s going on for them. It’s helpful to provide some context for why you’ve been worried they might be thinking about suicide. An example of a gentle yet direct way of asking about suicide might be: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been pretty down lately. I’m worried about you, and I was wondering if you’re thinking about suicide?”
One common myth about suicide is that people who express thoughts of killing themselves are just seeking attention
This is harmful and untrue – if someone is experiencing intense emotions and doesn't know how to cope with them, suicide might feel like a real option for them, so take some time to listen non-judgementally to what’s going on for them. Let them know that you care about them and validate their feelings. This also gives you an opportunity to get a better idea of how at-risk this person is at this moment. Here are a couple simple questions you can ask to find out how imminent the risk of suicide is: “Do you have a plan for how or when you would do it?” and “Have you ever tried to kill yourself before?”.
After listening to this person’s story, try working together to create a plan for their safety based on the information you just learned
You can always start by asking what kind of support this person would find helpful right now. They might not know what kind of support they need, and that’s okay – you might suggest keeping them company for the night or removing their specific means of suicide (like flushing pills or putting them somewhere safe). The person might not feel comfortable with the idea of you sharing this information with anyone else, and might ask you to keep it a secret. However, it’s not a good idea to keep this between you two – not only can carrying the burden of this knowledge on your own can be stressful and unsafe, the larger this person’s support network the better. It’s a good idea to connect this person with other services, such as a crisis line, a trusted family member or friend, or a professional counsellor.
Finally, remember that it’s important to keep your personal safety a priority too
If supporting this person feels unsafe for you, make sure you seek outside help. Don’t forget to take care of yourself and check in on your own needs – you can’t be a good support person for someone else without first looking after yourself.
While suicide is a very real risk for many people dealing with mental health concerns or situational distress, it can be preventable
If someone has shared with you that they are thinking about suicide, try to keep in mind that their sharing this information with you means that there is likely some part of them – however deep inside it may be – that wants to get help. Dealing with suicide, whether you’re thinking about it yourself or supporting someone who is, is never easy, but there is always hope.
If you, or someone you know, is thinking of suicide, please reach out to one of the crisis helplines below:
Across British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE Toronto Distress Centre: 416-408-HELP Calgary Distress Centre: 403-266-HELP Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4556