You always want to be able to comfort those close to you, but when they talk about deep and bitter truths like struggling with suicidal thoughts, it can be hard to know what to say—it’s scary to hear, and oftentimes, there isn’t much you personally can do about it.
What’s important when someone is talking to you about having suicidal thoughts is to give them an accepting space to be themselves and feel what they feel, not necessarily relate or try to fix it for them. Though it’s good to support and be there for someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the people best equipped to treat and help them manage their symptoms are mental health professionals. Maintaining everyone’s safety is the highest priority, and connecting someone with resources to support their safety is essential.
Where Do Suicidal Thoughts Come From?
Thoughts of suicide generally occur when a person feels as though they are unable to cope with overwhelming difficulties in their life. Oftentimes, people contemplating suicide feel extremely overwhelmed and unable to manage what’s happening in their lives, and see ending their life as a way to escape the pain they’re feeling. What might surprise some is that thinking of what might happen or how suicide might occur is not unusual at all, and most people that think about it don’t actually follow through.
The concern is when it becomes a frequent thought or fixation, especially if those thoughts are acted upon. If thoughts of suicide occur more frequently and are challenging to dismiss, or if the person starts to think of a plan to end their life or gathers the means to end their life, these signs need to be taken very seriously and safety measures should be taken.
Some factors that can place an individual at risk for suicidal thoughts are:
- Certain mental health disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Job or financial loss (economic hardship)
- Relationship loss
- Traumatic event (abuse, neglect, discrimination)
Suicide is a public health concern. While it affects people of all races and ages, there are certain populations that are especially vulnerable to suicide, such as veterans, men, LGBTQIA+ youth, tribal populations, and people of color. Approximately every 11 minutes, someone takes their life.
If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts or suicidality and need help and support, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling 988, and is an excellent resource with experts on the line waiting to assist you.
Are Suicidal Thoughts a Sign of Depression?
Suicidal thoughts can be a symptom of a depressive disorder. However, it is not a sure sign, and other symptoms need to be seen in order to make a diagnosis. Some examples of depressive disorders include:
- Disruptive mood dysregulation
- Major depressive disorder (MDD)
- Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- Substance/medication-induced depressive disorder
- Depressive disorder due to a medical condition
Suicidal thoughts are also not necessarily a sign of feeling depressed. Though the term depression means many things to many people, depression and depressive disorders are not the same thing. Depression or having a depressed mood can be a wide ranging and relatively persistent negative state, but it is not a clinically diagnosable condition.
Depressive disorders, though, include feeling sad or irritable along with changes in behavior that affect a person’s ability to function at home, school, work, or other important areas of life. When someone’s low mood and behavior start to disrupt their lives, it’s important to talk to a mental health professional about their symptoms.
What If Someone Says They Are Suicidal?
If someone expresses that they are at risk of killing themselves or or are having thoughts of death and suicide, you can call or text 988.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is the foremost resource for suicide prevention and mental health crisis care. They have mental health and suicide prevention experts ready to take your call 24/7 that are trained to deal with these situations. They can promise confidentiality when you or someone you know speaks to them, and they will talk you through your situation with empathy, understanding, and expert advice.
What Helps Suicidal Thoughts?
The best thing to do to help quiet or dismiss suicidal thoughts is to see a mental health professional. Generally, if a person meets with a mental health provider and expresses suicidal thoughts, the therapist will perform a suicide assessment and create a safety plan. Most safety plans include:
- Identification of triggers: Thoughts, feelings, situations, and circumstances that put you at emotional risk.
- Identification of warning signs: Behaviors that show that you are becoming more at risk.
- Identification of coping skills: Practices that help you effectively manage the issue.
- Establishing reminders of consequences for unsafe behavior.
- Contact information: 2-4 supportive individuals and suicide prevention resources that can be on-hand or on-call when at risk.
- Identification of safe places.
- Address of closest Emergency or Crisis Response Center
Each of these practices and precautions will help keep your thoughts and actions in check, whether you are only struggling with quieting suicidal thoughts or you are concerned that you might make an attempt. Each of these are helpful safeguards to protect your mental and physical well-being.
What If Someone Threatens Suicide?
In the event someone announces an intention to kill themselves, it is important to seek support immediately—for them and you. If you or the person is in imminent danger, contact 911. 988 also provides immediate support to people assisting individuals who express suicidal intent.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline includes a 3-phase safety assessment that includes:
- Connection and assessing immediate safety
- Collaboration (listen, clarify, plan)
- Offering a follow up call and wrapping up
After calling 988, the caller would be directed to a trained lifeline crisis counselor that will engage with the caller and provide an assessment and intervention.
What to Do When You Are Depressed and Suicidal
If someone is depressed, suicidal, and at risk of killing themselves, they should seek immediate help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a great place to start. You can call or text 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, if someone is in immediate and imminent danger, in these cases it is best to call 911.
If you are depressed and suicidal but not in a crisis situation, see a mental health professional about your concerns. As stated above, they will be able to address your concerns and work with you to come up with an effective treatment plan. They will be your best resources for dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Do You Call 911 If Someone Is Suicidal?
If the person expressing thoughts of self-termination is at imminent risk for harming themselves or someone else, contact 911. However, if the person requesting assistance is stable, you can call 988. The lifeline will only contact a law enforcement officer if an individual is at imminent risk of harming themselves or others and a less invasive approach for treating the individual cannot be agreed upon.
Emergency services personnel are trained for dangerous emergency situations, but if you believe that you or someone close to you needs talking down but is not in immediate danger of ending their life, 988 is likely the better option due to the operators’ mental health and suicide prevention training.
Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Depression or Suicidal Thoughts
Even though it is often said out of support and love, superficial advice or encouragement like, “Your life is amazing—people love you! So many others have it worse,” or, “It’ll all work itself out,” is not helpful to hear.
Instead, the best thing to do is create a safe space for the person experiencing depressed feelings or suicidal thoughts to tell their story. This safe space isn’t your time to be an expert advice giver or problem solver—this space gives them the opportunity to tell their perspective of things and feel seen, heard, and understood by someone that cares about them.
If you need an example of something to say, perhaps start with, “Thank you for your honesty. I’m sorry that you feel this way. Would you like to talk about it more?” Focus on what they need from you in the moment, though keep in mind that you are the audience here, not the speaker.
However, it can be difficult to see them bear the weight of suicidal thoughts, even as a bystander, which is why it’s important to have healthy boundaries for yourself. Know your emotional limits for talking about it, and make sure to have your own support system that you can lean on. As much as you may want to support those you know that are struggling, it’s impossible and unreasonable for you to take care of them on your own. Encourage them to see a mental health professional and get real treatment for their condition.
What Is Some Advice That a Person Can Give Someone Going Through a Tough Time?
Though advice is helpful when making friends or getting a new job, suicidal thoughts are deeper than a standard problem or situation, and because of that, trying to give advice isn’t always helpful or welcome. If someone with suicidal thoughts is in need of advice, therapy is the best course of action. Mental health professionals are the most educated and qualified sources of knowledge on the subject, and they will know how to advise someone with suicidal thoughts the most effectively.
Sometimes, though, advice isn’t really what someone struggling with suicidal thoughts needs. A hug and quiet acceptance and understanding from a loving source can be more supportive and comforting than words. However, for more long-term help, a therapist will be able to help narrow down what needs aren’t being met (i.e. what might be causing the thoughts to occur) and identify strategies to get that need met.
How to Help a Family Member in Crisis
There are a few ways to assist a family member going through a significant event or dangerous situation that affects their life. The first would be to check in with yourself and make sure that you’re in a position to help. Evaluate the situation and ensure that you are not putting yourself in danger. Know your limits and, if needed, get help yourself—it’s important to set realistic expectations of what your support entails.
If there is an immediate crisis and help is on its way, you can try to temporarily defuse the situation. In a measured tone of voice, offer empathetic understanding and reassurance or help deescalate the situation. After the event, it’s a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional, whatever the outcome. Experiencing crisis events can be traumatic and can leave an imprint that lasts well after it’s over.