It’s not something we routinely deal with. Having a friend or relative confide they have suicidal thoughts may feel like an unwelcome burden is being imposed on you. It’s not so bad. Here’s why, and what to do:
First, it’s important to note that the person sees something in you they feel they can confide in. So don’t try to be different. Don’t try to push the person away by saying you aren’t qualified or competent to deal with it. Perhaps they aren’t at a point where they want to seek professional help or they may already have done it. Stay calm and be prepared to hear them out.
Try to remember you are on the receiving end of beliefs and emotions. This isn’t necessarily an issue that can be problem-solved or argued down. The way another person views an issue may seem out of proportion to you but this is about how they see things and how they are being affected, so be patient.
Don’t be afraid of silence. Confiding such intimate thoughts can actually be quite exhausting. This will be something the person may have brooded on for weeks and months in the lead up to confiding in you. Once they start it may take a while for them to articulate how they feel. As they speak previously hidden emotions may surface. Just listen. If you’re thinking about what to say next you aren’t listening.
If they start to look to you for conversation ask open-ended questions that won’t result in a yes or no answer. If you get a feeling they are actively thinking of taking their life don’t be afraid to ask directly. You won’t be feeding them an idea. If they aren’t actively suicidal they will dismiss the idea, but if they are, there’s a good chance they will tell you.
If the person admits they are considering suicide, now is the time to seek details. When were they planning to do it? How? Where? A person who can answer such direct questions is likely to be quite serious in what they are saying.
Tell the person you are taking what they are saying seriously. Point out that while you may not have all the answers you know this is a situation that can be resolved by people who have better understanding and experience. Offer to support them and reassure them they have done the right thing by opening up to you. Maybe offer to stay close and to accompany them to their doctor.
You may feel you are out of your depth in such a situation, but keep in mind this is highly unlikely to be a stranger. You are much more likely to have a shared history and this alone ties you together in a way that makes helping so much easier. Don’t get flustered and don’t assume their life is your responsibility. It isn’t, so all you can do is be yourself. After all, that’s why they turned to you in the first place.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.