Suicide Prevention: A Critical Conversation, This Year and Every Year

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This month during National Suicide Prevention Month, we are taking extra time to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and seeking help if and when needed. This year, as we see COVID-19 cases spiking and as many are feeling the affects of moths of chronic stress, it is critical that we revisit some important mental health talking points.

If someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time, you can be the difference in getting them the help they need. Below are some tips to consider from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline when talking with friends and family about mental health, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Do They Need Your Help?

Some warning signs may help you determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased, or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings

How Can You Help Them?

Note: It can be scary when a friend or loved one is thinking about suicide, and it can be difficult to know how a suicidal crisis feels and how to act. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time for help if someone in your life is struggling.

Contact a Lifeline Center

Never keep it a secret if a friend or family member tells you about a plan to hurt themselves. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) so that you can find out what resources are available to you or encourage your loved one to call.

A few other resources include:

  • Crisis line 24-hour hotline: 800-584-3578 (for Island, Skagit, Snohomish & Whatcom Counties)
  • Veteran Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255 press 1, text 838255, or chat online
  • LGBTQ+ Suicide Hotline (Trevor Project): 866-488-7386 or Text START to 678-678  
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233

Use The Do’s and Don’ts

Talking with and finding help for someone that may be suicidal can be difficult. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
  • Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
  • Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • Don’t dare him or her to do it.
  • Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
  • Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
  • Take action. Remove means, like weapons or pills. Do never put yourself at risk or in harms way. If the situation is unsafe or you feel threatened, call 911.
  • Get help from people or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Go to https://namiskagit.org/ for local resources.

Use the 5 Action Steps

These evidence-based action steps from bethe1to.com provide a blueprint for reaching and helping someone in crisis.

  1. ASK – Yes, you can ask the question: “Are you thinking about suicide?” By asking it directly, you are communicating that you are open to speaking about suicide in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Asking in this direct, unbiased manner, can open the door for healthier, more effective dialogue about their emotional state and can allow everyone to see what next steps need to be taken.
  2. BE THERE – It may seem that “being there” for people is harder recently. But you can be present in different ways. If you can’t physically be with someone, speak with them on the phone when you can or try sending supportive text messages; whatever you can do to show support for the person at risk. An important aspect of this step is to make sure you follow through with the ways in which you say you’ll be able to support the person; do not commit to anything you are not willing or able to accomplish. If you are unable to be physically present with someone with thoughts of suicide, talk with them to develop some ideas for others who might be able to help as well (again, only others who are willing, able, and appropriate to be there). Listening is again very important during this step – find out what and who they believe will be the most effective sources of help.
  3. KEEP THEM SAFE – First of all, it’s good for everyone to be on the same page. After the “Ask” step, and you’ve determined suicide is indeed being talked about, it’s important to find out a few things to establish immediate safety. Have they already done anything to try to kill themselves before talking with you? Does the person experiencing thoughts of suicide know how they would kill themselves? Do they have a detailed plan? What’s the timing for their plan? What sort of access do they have to their planned method?
  4. HELP THEM CONNECT – Helping someone with thoughts of suicide connect with ongoing supports (like the Lifeline, 800-273-8255) can help them establish a safety net for those moments they find themselves in a crisis. Additional components of a safety net might be connecting them with supports and resources in their communities. Explore some of these possible supports with them – are they currently seeing a mental health professional? Have they in the past? Is this an option for them currently? Are there other mental health resources in the community that can effectively help?
  5. FOLLOW UP – After your initial contact with a person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and after you’ve connected them with the immediate support systems they need, make sure to follow-up with them to see how they’re doing. Leave a message, send a text, or give them a call. The follow-up step is a great time to check in with them to see if there is more you are capable of helping with or if there are things you’ve said you would do and haven’t yet had the chance to get done for the person.

Practice Active Listening

Hearing someone talk is different than actively listening to what that person is saying. Active listening requires concentration and understanding. Improving your listening skills is easy to do with practice and these helpful tips below:

Acknowledge the Speaker

This can be as simple as a head nod or an “Uh huh.” By acknowledging the speaker, you are letting them know that you are listening to what they have to say and reminding yourself to pay attention to what is being said to you.

Respond Verbally

Asking questions or making statements may help clarify what the speaker is saying. It reminds the speaker that you are listening attentively and that you are here to help them and are truly concerned. Be sure to let the speaker finish talking before asking any questions.

Summarize What You Hear

Reflecting on what the listener is saying is also a positive verbal active listening technique. By repeating, paraphrasing, or even summarizing what the speaker has said shows that you are putting in effort to better understand them. Use phrases like; “what I’m hearing is…”or, “sounds like you’re saying….” These tactics can also allow the speaker to hear what they are saying, which may help them find positive reinforcement.

Be Mindful of Body Language

Keeping eye contact, maintaining good posture, and staying focused are key components of active listening and interpersonal communication. Being distracted and unfocused gives the speaker the impression that you aren’t paying attention. When you actively listen to someone, you are letting them know that you care about what they are saying and can indicate that you are concerned for their health and safety.

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It is important to take care of yourself when you are supporting someone through a difficult time, as this may stir up difficult emotions. If it does, please reach out for support yourself. Know that anyone is encouraged to call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with a trained professional. They’re here for you.

This September let’s actively try to reach out to those in our lives. And if you are struggling yourself, consider reaching out for help. There is absolutely no shame in needing help, and you deserve to feel better.