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What Do You Do When Someone Tells You They Are Suicidal?

Recently a friend of mine asked for my input about a situation with a relative of his.

He had been chatting with him online and the subject of depression came up.  This relative expressed that he was struggling and said some things that were concerning.  He spoke of suffering from Depression, Bipolar disorder, PTSD and having suicidal thoughts.  He also said that he coped with the suicidal thoughts with humor.

Hard to know what is going on in chat, right?

So, here’s what I told him (edited).  I thought it might be useful to someone.


I don’t think you should *ever* take it lightly if someone is talking about suicide or expressing thoughts about persistent depression or mental health issues.  I also don’t think you should just take them at their word or accept their reassurances that they are coping successfully, whether it’s with humor or otherwise.

I’d first want to get an idea of his current state. Is he in some kind of immediate crisis? Is he in a dangerous situation? Has there been a trigger of some kind?  Some kind of stressful event? Is some kind immediate intervention is important? If you suspect that some kind of immediate intervention might be necessary, don’t hesitate.

Also, I think the medium of communication can make a difference. You miss the a lot of non-verbal information in chat, email, etc. But, sometimes people will talk about things in writing that are difficult to talk about in real-time conversation. Be sensitive about using the right combination of methods.  Switch to the phone if you think it will help.

If it really does sound like an emergency, urge him to contact friends of family or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.  Unfortunately though, if someone is in an acute suicidal crisis, it may not be possible to persuade them to take action.  That degree of depression and crisis can be emotional and mentally paralysing.  He may not be able to think clearly enough to take action even if he wants to.  You can’t be sure if he will follow through.  If you think he is in genuine danger and is resisting taking action and you can’t find friends or family to intervene, consider calling emergency services and talking to them.  You can find the suicide prevention number in the front of you phone book.  If it is truly urgent, as in, he has gun or a knife or is on a ledge threatening to jump, call 911 and keep him on the line. They are equipped to deal with this kind of thing.

If he’s not in crisis, try to get an idea of the broader picture.  Is he functioning well? Working? Engaged in normal activities and interests? Spending time with friends? Or, is he deviating from normal life activities or withdrawing from them? Is he aware of any changes?  Does he have insight that things are different, for better or worse? People who have insight into their situation are more likely to recognise problems and seek help.  You can be discrete by carefully questioning him or if you have contact with his family or friends, you can contact them.

He’s referring to Mood disorders, clinical depression and PTSD. That’s a combination of things that suggest to me some kind of complicated history of environmental and/or clinical issues. This is pretty serious stuff. That also means it means it might be difficult to treat or resistant to treatment. It sounds like he’s got some level of knowledge about it and has put some thought into it. I’d be wondering first if he is self-diagnosing (Internet of whatever) or if he’s in treatment and diagnosed by a professional. The potential seriousness suggests he needs to be in treatment. If he’s not, is he resistant to getting treatment? If so, that’s a red flag to me. If he is in treatment, is he confident in his health care provider and treatment? Psychologist, psychiatrist, whatever. Does he feel like he’s improving? Does he want to get ‘well’, whatever that means to him? How hopeful is he about that? How committed is he to it? How stable is he? Is there the potential for serious escalation? If there’s a risk, Is there an escalation plan? For example, is there a trust level with his providers where he would contact them if his condition escalates? Does he have a social safety network that is aware of his condition that he would talk to if he were to escalate?  At the point in my recovery when I was unstable and couldn’t think clearly, I had a placard posted on the wall in my house with instruction in large print for what actions to take and who to call.

It’s hard to talk to someone about this kind of thing if you don’t have some experience with it. The stakes are high and you’re not sure what to say and the effect it will have.  Trust is crucial.  Cultivate it.  It sounds like he’s willing to talk to you pretty openly, which is a big deal. Be sensitive to the fact that It’s very hard to find people you can trust to talk to when you have this kind of problem. Most people don’t know how to deal with it. I think a lot of people suffer in silence because of fear of rejection, judgment, stigma.  There is often an increased level of distrust, defensiveness, fragility and vulnerability that is heightened as a part of the illness itself. This kind of condition seriously affects how you see yourself, your value, whether you are deserving of support and your ability to advocate for you own care. You can feel like you are not worth saving.  It can feel like the situation is hopeless and the problems bottomless and that no one can help you.  You feel like you have nothing to offer anyone and that you are only a burden.  So, you’re not worth the effort, sacrifice and investment in time and resources to support you.

The visible reality of physical illnesses tends to attract attention, concern and support spontaneously.  This kind of illness is different.  It’s hidden and it can make you feel like it’s your fault that you are in the situation you are in and you don’t deserve support.  It makes it difficult to reach out.  It can be a huge relief when you find someone who is simply kind, gentle, sincere, patient, empathetic and, perhaps most importantly, non-judgmental.  Gently, sincerely telling someone that they are unconditionally loved and valuable, even when they resist it, goes a long way.  Try to keep in mind that the resistance to your efforts is probably a part of the illness itself – a product of how the illness makes them feel about themselves – not a lack of appreciation.

To give you a real-world example, 20 years ago I had to gradually convince a friend to get help over a period of several months. She knew something was wrong but thought she was handling it. I used the ‘Depression is as serious as cancer’ argument with her and that finally got her to do something. I eased the way for her by arranging for a consultation for her with my therapist. She ended up being referred to a psychiatrist and started on medication. She’s told me many times since that she’s sure that saved her life.

I hope that’s helpful. If there’s anything else I can do to help, let me know.

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