I remember the first time I took on a client that had reported having suicidal feelings and being very nervous about speaking to them. I guess we all have preconceived ideas about what it means to be in a suicidal place. Of course, the reality is that none of us can see or experience things from someone else's frame of reference. But that doesn't mean we can't help someone who has those thoughts. Very often, just listening to that person's story and allowing them to feel safe and feel that they are truly being heard is one of the best things you can do for that person. It could save a life.
So, I thought I would share some suggestions about how to help a suicidal friend.
Don't minimise, invalidate or brush off their feelings.
What this person is experiencing is real to them. If you are lucky enough to be speaking to them then you are someone they trust enough to speak to. Believe what they tell you - this is important to them right now. Whilst you may believe their feelings will pass, that will be hard for them to believe. Share in their experience and take them seriously. The way they are feeling is real and important.
Really listen to them. Pay attention and create a judgement free space.
Try not to interrupt. Allow them to tell their story. Listen to them intently. Try not to put your spin on it. Don't just hear what you want to hear. Show them that you are interested in them, and how it feels for them. Repeat back using their words if necessary. It is very hard not to judge but try, at least, to withhold any judgement within the space.
Be their advocate. Help them to get help.
Help the person to be heard. Don't speak for them, but make them feel comfortable to seek the help they may need. Be with them. Encourage them to access help, advice and services.
This is a process of empowerment. Help them to help themselves, and go along with them on their journey, in a supportive manner.
Ask them what they need from you, and do that thing.
You may think you know what they need from you. Chances are, you're wrong.
Ask the person what they need from you. Wherever possible (and where it is safe to do so), try to do what they ask. This will show them you are listening to them, that you believe them, and that you care.
Encourage self-care and taking care of basic needs
Doing the basics. Getting up, washed and dressed. Doing things that make a person feel positive and energised. Taking exercise and eating properly. Minimising alcohol or drug use. These are all things that encourage the person to be kind to themselves and to promote positive physical and mental health. Encourage this wherever you can.
Spend time with them and be present
Spending time with a person - sounds simple - but it is effective and shows that you care.
Being present is about bringing your mind into the here and now - being 'in the moment' - not worrying about what the future may hold, or obsessing on the troubles of the past. If you can be present with them, it will encourage them to step into the here and now with you. That often helps.
Let them know they aren't a burden to you
It is common for people with suicidal thoughts to think they are a burden - to their family, their friends or to the world. Just knowing that they are not a burden and that you're there to hear their story can mean such a lot to them.
Give them any reassurance they may need that you're interested in their story and that you want to help to empower them to move beyond this.
Point them in the direction of helpful resources
There are lots of people and services that can help people with suicidal thoughts. Assuming there is no immediate emergency (more at the end of this article), you might point them to a service that can help. This could be something like the Samaritans, or could be something more specific relating to the cause of their difficult thoughts - maybe for financial or housing advice, or for help through a bereavement.
Remember that the person may need someone else to help point them to these services - perhaps because they are in crisis and not thinking in their usual manner. This is where you can help.
Whilst emergency or crisis help will assist, I would suggest that a more long term counselling or psychotherapy approach will help to get to the causes of the problem. I am happy to help, or point people to a more appropriate service if necessary.
Help them create a crisis plan
A crisis or safety plan is something a person puts in place should they become overwhelmed and start feeling suicidal. You can help them develop this.
The plan must be realistic and 'do-able' so it is important to empower the person to compile this plan for themselves. However, The Samartians have suggested a number of things that a person may wish to consider :
How can I spot the signs of a crisis so I can take pre-emptive action?
What internal coping strategies can I employ?
How can I use friends and family to distract me from suicidal thoughts?
Write down which of my friends and family can help me.
Compile a list of mental health resources and agencies that can help me.
How can I make it harder for myself to harm myself?
The graphic included here contains a list of useful contacts for all sorts of things. You can click it to enlarge it.
If a person is in immediate danger or has already hurt themselves you should always call 999.
If a person is in crisis, then call the Adult or Young Person's NHS Crisis team (numbers for Hull and East Riding are in the graphic).
If the person is in crisis and needs to talk to someone urgently, I would suggest the Samaritans 116 123.
If the person wants longer term help to resolve the issues causing these thoughts, I would recommend counselling or psychotherapy services.
Talking Works is a private counselling, psychotherapy and coaching service that I run. You can request a free consultation with me by using the contact details below, or by using the button above. More details about me, and the services I offer can be found on the website www.talkingworks.uk
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