This article discusses suicide. If you feel like you’re going to act on suicidal thoughts, call 000 if you live in Australia. A number of crisis support services are also there for you – have a look at our urgent help page.
If a friend of yours is currently experiencing suicidal thoughts, you'll know that they're going through a tough time in their life.
Thankfully, there are some proven ways to help people who are thinking about taking their life.
If you think a friend is at risk of suicide, psychologists suggest asking them about it directly. You could say something like: 'Are you having thoughts of suicide?'
As you’ll see in this video, it’s about having an open, truthful and supportive conversation about suicide, about what’s going on for them, and about what they can do to heal and recover.
Here are a few things you can do to support people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide:
1. Look for warning signs
Here are a few warning signs that someone you know might be at risk of suicide:
- They’ve stopped participating in activities they used to enjoy or that were meaningful to them.
- They’re self-harming.
- They’re giving away their possessions.
- They’re writing goodbye letters to people in their life.
- They seem to have less physical energy.
- They’ve experienced depression in the past.
- They say they feel trapped and helpless.
- They’re abusing drugs or alcohol.
- They say they feel alone or unsupported.
2. Be direct – ask about suicide
There is a myth that talking about suicide with someone who appears to be at risk might be harmful. Some people think the person might find it rude or, even worse, that it might ‘put the idea in their head’.
In reality, psychologists agree that asking about suicide won’t put your friend at risk. In fact, suicidal people do generally want to talk about how they’re feeling, but might find it hard to bring it up. By taking the step of asking them directly and clearly, you might even save their life.
If you’re worried about someone and you think they might be considering ending their life, ask them something like this:
‘It sounds like you’re going through a tough time right now. Are you thinking about suicide?’
Checking in with yourself
It might be worth asking yourself if you’re in the right headspace to have a discussion about suicide if you’re going through a tough time yourself at the moment. If you are, you could direct your friend to someone else, such as another friend, or a family member, or a helpline.
Otherwise, check out how you can look after yourself while you’re supporting someone else.
3. Ask questions and listen
If you’re worried about someone and you find out they’re thinking of ending their life, there may be a lot of things you want to say to them. You might want to tell them you care about them, that they have a lot to live for, or that these feelings will pass.
While it can be very helpful to say these things at some stage, you need first to ask the person to talk about their situation – and listen to what they have to say.
One of the many reasons some people think about ending their life is that they feel lonely and unsupported in life. If you only talk about your thoughts and feelings, even positive ones, you risk not giving them a chance to feel heard.
Here are a few examples of helpful questions you can ask people who are thinking about suicide:
- What’s making you feel this way?
- When did you start feeling this way?
- When you’re feeling bad about yourself, is there anything you do to cope?
- How do you feel when talking to other people about this?
4. Help them find reasons to keep going
Reasons to live
After you’ve listened to the person talk about how they’re feeling, you can start to help them think of reasons for living that are meaningful to them, not to you.
You might want to ask them about:
- any activities they enjoy doing
- their relationships with their family and/or friends
- times when they’ve felt good about themselves
- anything they’ve dreamed of doing but haven’t yet had the chance to do
- their religious beliefs
- pets or animals they enjoy spending time with
- social or political causes they feel passionate about.
Sometimes people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide have a hard time thinking of things they connect with. In this case, you can talk about their doubts – reasons why they might not want to end their life, or why they haven’t ended their life already.
For example, if they’re afraid of the impact their death will have on people around them, such as their family and friends, this means those people are important to them. In that case, you could talk about developing and strengthening those relationships.
The reason this works is that people who are thinking about ending their life generally do have reasons to live. You can help them remember these by encouraging them to discuss and explore their reasons for living.
5. Help them commit to a safety plan
After you’ve talked with your friend about their situation, and about their reasons to keep living, you’ll want to help them commit to staying safe for the time being.
You can do this by just chatting to them, but we recommend getting a sheet of paper and making a written plan. This creates something tangible that they can come back to in the future whenever they’re feeling distressed.
Think in the short term
When thinking about safety plans, it's important to focus on the short term. When you make a safety plan with someone, talk about a specific period of time they’re going to commit to staying safe – whether it’s for the next month, week, day, or even just until the next morning.
Create a safe environment
You might want to ask your friend if they’ve thought about how they might end their life, or if there are any objects in their environment that they might use to hurt themselves. If so, you can help them remove these from their environment, either temporarily or permanently.
Make a list of contacts
Having a list of people to talk to is another way a suicidal person can stay safe. It’s important to have lots of different sources of help on this list because the people your friend is most comfortable talking to during times of distress might not be available. This list could include:
- other friends
- family members
- sports coaches
- religious leaders
- professional help sources such as psychologists, social workers, counsellors or their GP
- helplines like Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).
After you’ve done this, ask your friend if they’d like to talk to anyone on that list about what they’ve been going through, once they’re feeling a bit more safe. If they’d be uncomfortable having that conversation with their support network, ask if it would be okay for you to tell those people.
Write down safe activities
If someone’s feeling distressed and unsafe, there may be some activities that can help them briefly take their mind off things. These might be things like:
- forms of exercise such as walking, running or going for a bike ride
- expressing their creativity by drawing, playing a musical instrument or journalling
- reading, watching TV or gaming
- practising mindfulness.
Put their safety first
In some cases, your friend might not want to talk about their feelings with anyone. If they’ve also asked you not to tell their friends, family or other trusted people in their life, you’ll be put in a difficult situation.
However, if you’re worried that your friend is in danger, it’s important that you do tell someone. Your friend might get mad at you – but it’s more important that you’ve kept them alive and well.
Situations like these put a lot of pressure on you, so the best thing to do is to talk to a parent, counsellor or teacher, or to call 000 in the case of an emergency.
Remember to look after yourself as well
Supporting someone who is feeling suicidal can be tough. You should know that no matter what’s happened, you aren’t responsible for what they’re going through. Ultimately, even though you can help them find the support they need, you can’t control what they’re going through.
That’s why it’s so important to care for yourself after dealing with difficult situations like these:
- Make sure to schedule time for rewarding activities for yourself.
- If you’re confused about how to help your friend, support lines like Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) are here to help, even if you’re feeling well personally.
- Remember to think about your boundaries. If helping someone else is taking a lot out of you, think about ways you’re up for helping and ways you aren’t.
Importantly, you should remember that statistically, almost everyone who experiences suicidal feelings does eventually recover.
What can I do now?
- Read our article about how to create a suicide safety plan for your friend.
- Check out some more ideas for self-care activities.
- If your friend doesn’t want help, here are a few things you can do to be there for them.