How to Help a Suicidal Person
By: Beth McHugh 2007
What would you do if you suddenly encountered a friend, family member, or even a complete stranger who was showing strong signs of imminent suicide? Few of us are taught what to do in a situation such as this, so let’s look some ways to deal with this extremely difficult situation.
- Do not get involved physically if the person is highly distressed
In this situation, talking is the best option. The longer you can keep the person talking, even if it is only you who is doing the talking, the longer you will delay any dire action and hence the greater the likelihood of the person surviving the incident. If they are moving about agitatedly, let them keep moving. This serves to release the tension inside them. Obviously if they are about to jump from a great height, you similarly would not approach them, particularly in using any rapid movement. This is the single most likely action to precipitate death. Just keep them talking.
If the person is threatening in any way, or in possession of a weapon, again keep your distance.
- Ensure the person is not left alone. Stay with the person
if you consider the risk of suicide is high. Alternatively, try to
arrange for someone else to be with them while they get through the
Never leave a suicidal person alone. It is better not to seek professional help if it means leaving the person. In many ways, you as a human being who is displaying concern and caring can be just as effective as a trained professional as long as you talk in the correct manner (see 3).
- Encourage the person to talk. Listen without judgment. Be
polite and respectful. Don’t deny the person’s feelings.
Don’t try to give advice.
The more you can get the person to talk, the less the chance of the suicidal act being completed. Listen to what the person is saying and do not judge what they are saying, even if you disagree with their words. Remember, you have no idea of the course of events that has led this person to this point in their lives, and therefore it is disrespectful and potentially harmful to judge. Also, do not patronize the person, they will pick this up in your voice in a heartbeat.
If you truly do not know what to say, then say exactly that. Whatever you say, say it with sincerity. The person will readily pick up on sincerity and honesty. Remember, they are desperately searching for a reason to go on living. Contact with just one, honest, truly loving and concerned person can make a huge difference in this person’s life.
- Seek immediate help.
Without leaving the person alone (see 2), phone the Mental Health crisis number in your area. If you do not know the number, phone 911 to seek backup support. Alternatively you may be able to take the person to a hospital emergency department. The latter depends on the situation: if the person resists, do not insist or make any sudden movements or physical contact (see 1).
- If the person is consuming alcohol or drugs, try to talk
them out of consuming any more.
Again, this needs to be done in a non-threatening and respectful way (see 3). Keeping the dialogue going between you is one of the best ways to slow down any drinking or postpone further drug taking. Talking can be a useful distraction from these activities.
- Try to ensure the person does not have ready access to some
means of taking their lives.
If possible, keep the person away from knives and other weapons, as well as places of potential danger, such as balconies.
- Identify if the person is at risk.
Ask the following question directly: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” Contrary to popular belief, asking a person this question will not precipitate a suicidal act. On the contrary, you can assess the risk far better by not avoiding the issue at hand. The person concerned will know that you are taking them seriously and not trying to skirt around the subject. Asking this question signals to them that you care, and this is precisely what this person needs at this time.
- Assess how high the risk is.
Ask them do they have a plan of action. If so, ask them to describe in detail just how they plan to end their life. This will give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation. Generally speaking, the greater the level of planning, the greater the risk. This information is of use as it can be passed on to mental health professionals when the crisis is over. Ask if they have tried to take their life before. Again, previous attempts point to a higher likelihood of a successful suicide.
Next blog, further help
in dealing with potential suicide.