How to Talk About Suicide to Support Your Friend

Tips for National Suicide Prevention Week and World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10)

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CredibleMind Ambassador Blog by Mara Waldhorn M.S.| View Original Blog

When I was in my twenties, a dear friend frequently called to express suicidal thoughts and feelings of deep depression. I’d often be out when she called and would squat against the side of a building as the bustle of New York City whizzed by. I’d pick up no matter where I was, secretly terrified that if I didn’t, my friend would take her life. I didn’t have the tools at the time to field her calls in a helpful way, and that kept us both in a stalemate in seeking to face what then felt like a taboo matter.

If you have suicidal thoughts or know someone who does, you’re not alone. Nearly 50,000 people take their life by suicide in the US each year, and about 1.4 million attempt suicide.1 You could save the life of someone you know — or your own life — by tapping into existing resources. Instant help can be found for yourself, a friend, or a family member via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273–8255.

I researched a new way to broach the topics of depression and suicide with my friend by simply typing into the search bar: “What to say to a suicidal friend.” This led me to some unexpected advice from a credible source: I learned that what I needed to do more of with my friend was to lean in. In the past, I had always played the cheerleader. When my friend called, I would try to lure her out of her depression, giving her advice to stay positive and to keep on going! While this approach was well-intentioned, I was ignoring her depressed mindset.

I learned that a more effective way to communicate is to ask questions about her feelings. In a blog post, Suicide: What to do when someone is suicidal, the Mayo Clinic suggests asking questions like “Have you thought about how or when you’d do it?” and “Do you have access to weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself?”2

At first, this seemed terrifying. I didn’t want to add fuel to her fire of sadness. However, I knew I wasn’t making much headway with my cheerleading approach, so I tried this tactic. I noticed an instant difference when I stopped trying to fix my friend’s pain and began acknowledging it. When I started asking questions such as those above, she paused to really contemplate what I was asking. The questions helped her develop an awareness of how she was feeling, which over time led to her being more of an outside observer looking in on her own life.

Over a decade has passed since I received these calls from my friend. On her own initiative, she discovered that therapy and medication were needed to help her find more clarity. Everyone’s life circumstances and journeys are different, so what may help one person may not help another. Through self-inquiry, awareness, and support, though, finding a new way is possible. Modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) are just two of the proven methods of suicide prevention.

The benefits of learning about suicide prevention can extend even to those, like me, who never entertain suicidal thoughts — so that instead of feeling helpless around a loved one who reaches out, you can be part of the solution for them. You might even save their life.

September 7–14 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, which will add to the visibility of the issue for those seeking to learn more. At CredibleMind, we are here to equip you with credible resources. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Suicide & Prevention — CredibleMind resource center with more information on suicide and prevention
  • World Suicide Prevention Day — website for World Suicide Prevention Day, established by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP)
  • Friends for Survival — website that offers support to people who knew a suicide victim
  • The Importance of Innovation in Suicide Prevention — podcast about suicide prevention from Psych Central, the world’s largest and oldest independent mental health online resource
  • Electroshock Therapy — website for the International Society for ECT and Neurostimulation, which promotes the safe, ethical, and effective use of this modality to mitigate suicidal ideation and depression
  • Personal Stories — Now Matters Now website that offers advice and profiles people who have experienced suicidal thoughts
  • Mindfulness — TedTalk about how mindfulness is a way through depression

[1] (2020 July 29). Suicide statistics. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics

[2] (2018 January 31). Suicide: What to do when someone is suicidal. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/suicide/in-depth/suicide/art-20044707

[3] Stanley, B., Brown, G., Brent, D. A., Wells, K., Poling, K., Curry, J., . . . Hughes, J. (2009). Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP): Treatment Model, Feasibility, and Acceptability. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 48(10), 1005–1013. doi: 10.1097/CHI.0b013e3181b5dbfe

[4] Linehan, M. M., Korslund, K. E., Harned, M. S., Gallop, R. J., Lungu, A., Neacsiu, A. D., . . . Murray-Gregory, A. M. (2015). Dialectical behavior therapy for high suicide risk in individuals with borderline personality disorder: a randomized clinical trial and component analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 72(5), 475–482. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3039.

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