What Can I Do to Help my Loved One Who is Depressed or Suicidal?

Patient Expert

With the shocking news last month that actor Robin Williams killed himself, many people in the country who had not been familiar with the dangers of depression may now realize that deep depression can lead to deadly actions. Depression does not discriminate, depression can make people feel hopeless, and depression can drive someone to killing themselves.

Perhaps those of us who have intimate experience with depression and/or suicidal thoughts were not surprised that someone would take their own life; instead, it was probably more surprising to hear the refrain - "I didn't know..." - echoing throughout the media.

Consider a hypothetical person who is in a current state of deep depression and is at least near the surface enough to notice all of the attention that suicide is getting, he/she might respond to the news with a curt - "Of course, depression [insert any one of many negative qualities]; now go away, and leave me the hell alone."

It is difficult to get close to someone who is depressed. It can be, well, depressing, and frustrating and infuriating and maddening and sad and concerning. Trying to reach through the darkness to a loved one who is buried in depression can make you feel completely inadequate and helpless. You may begin to feel unloved or unappreciated and may want to distance yourself emotionally as a measure of protection.

Just as the person who is depressed may feel overwhelming helplessness, loved ones can feel quite the same. Helpless to know what to do or how they can help. Even as someone who struggles with depression, I don't often know what to do to assist those around me when they are feeling more than "blue" or a bit anxious.

What can I do to help my loved one who is depressed or suicidal?

First of all, know that a person who is suicidal may not ask for help. They may push you away, but that doesn't mean that they don't want help. Most people who commit suicide don't want to die, they just want to stop hurting. Almost 1 million people attempt suicide each year in the US and it is estimated that 5 million living Americans have attempted to kill themselves at some point in their lives.

Suicide prevention starts with recognizing the warning signs, taking them seriously, and speaking up if you are worried. When talking to a suicidal person, let the person know you care, listen (don't lecture), be sympathetic and non-judgmental, offer hope (but don't argue, patronize, or try to "fix" their problems), and know that you are not putting ideas in the person's head when you ask directly if he/she has had thoughts of suicide.

Recognize these warning signs of suicide, excerpted from Helpguide.org (©):

  • Talking about suicide: Any talk about suicide, dying, or self-harm, such as "I wish I hadn't been born," "If I see you again..." and "I'd be better off dead."
  • Seeking out lethal means: Seeking access to guns, pills, knives, or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Preoccupation with death: Unusual focus on death, dying, or violence. Writing poems or stories about death.
  • No hope for the future: Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being trapped ("There's no way out"). Belief that things will never get better or change.
  • Self-loathing, self-hatred: Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, shame, and self-hatred. Feeling like a burden ("Everyone would be better off without me").
  • Getting affairs in order: Making out a will. Giving away prized possessions. Making arrangements for family members.
  • Saying goodbye: Unusual or unexpected visits or calls to family and friends. Saying goodbye to people as if they won't be seen again.
  • Withdrawing from others: Withdrawing from friends and family. Increasing social isolation. Desire to be left alone.
  • Self-destructive behavior: Increased alcohol or drug use, reckless driving, unsafe sex. Taking unnecessary risks as if they have a "death wish."
  • Sudden sense of calm: A sudden sense of calm and happiness after being extremely depressed can mean that the person has made a decision to commit suicide.

If you notice any of these warning signs, be proactive in offering help and support. One of the best ways you can help is to offer an empathetic ear and let the person know that he/she is not alone and that you care. Respond quickly in a crisis and get professional help. Once a crisis has passed, however, stay in touch with the person and continue to offer support. (Additional warning signs can be found here.)

If you are thinking about committing suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the National Hopeline Network at** 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)**. These toll-free crisis hotlines offer 24-hour suicide prevention and support. Your call is free and confidential. You can also read read this Suicide Help page. To find a suicide helpline outside of the US, visit IASP or Suicide.org.

In honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, September 8-14, 2014, please take a moment to ask how your loved ones are doing. Check-in and really listen. Although you may feel helpless to do anything at times, you CAN make a difference


Smith M, Segal J, Robinson L. How to Help Someone who is Suicidal (updated July 2014). HelpGuide.org. Accessed August 28, 2014.

Jaffe J, Robinson L, Segal J. Suicide Help (updated July 2014). HelpGuide.org. Accessed August 28, 2014.

Caruso, Kevin. Suicide Warning Signs (n.d.). Suicide.org. Accessed August 22, 2014.

Emrich, Lisa. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Depression, and Suicide Prevention. HealthCentral.com, September 10, 2010. Accessed August 22, 2014.

Lisa Emrich is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers