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How Can I Help a Suicidal Friend?

There are many different triggers that might lead someone to have suicidal thoughts and feelings, from a traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one or ending of a significant romantic relationship, to severe clinical depression or other underlying mental illness, to alcohol or drug abuse (although substance abuse can be an effect of suicidal feelings rather than a cause). No matter the cause, most people who consider suicide do so because they are experiencing such intense emotional pain that they feel it is unbearable, that it will never end and that there is no other way to escape it.

Seek Professional Support

The most important way you can help a friend who is considering ending their own life is to gently but firmly encourage them to speak with a professional. Whether they turn to a suicide hotline counselor, family medical doctor, psychologist or grief therapist, it is essential for them to share their feelings with someone who has the knowledge and training to find or provide them with the treatment they need.

Important Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: U.S.-based hotline (1-800-273-TALK) that offers free, confidential, 24-hour support to anyone who is, or who knows someone who is, experiencing suicidal feelings or other emotional crisis. The website provides additional suicide prevention resources.

Canadian Crisis Centers: Contact information for Canadian suicide-prevention centers listed by province/territory by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Kids Help Phone for Teens: Information for teenagers on suicide and a variety of other topics that can affect them, as well as free, confidential counseling available 24 hours a day online or by phone (1-800-668-6868).

Support your friend by offering to accompany them to a crisis center or doctor’s appointment, or to be with them when they call a hotline, or even to make an appointment or other call on their behalf.

If you fear for your friend’s safety and they refuse to pursue any avenue of professional assistance, you should contact someone anyway. This can be a difficult decision to make because you may feel that you are betraying your friend and the confidence they placed in you, and it’s true that, at first, they might be angry with you for taking this step to help them. But if your friend is suicidal, then you need to remember that you are acting in their best interest. Moreover, you are acting in your own best interest: you cannot bear responsibility for your friend’s mental health — or, more seriously, their life — on your own.

Be a Good Listener

Although it is crucial for your friend to communiciate with someone who is professionally trained to offer suicide help and treatment, you can still give them a lot of support by making yourself available whenever they want or need to talk.

Be comfortable discussing sadness, depression and suicide with your friend, and don’t be afraid to broach these subjects with them. Many people fear that talking about suicide with a suicidal person will make them more likely to harm themselves, but this is untrue, and in fact the opposite is often the case — being able to talk openly with a non-judgemental friend can contribute significantly to easing the feelings of isolation that most suicidal people experience.

Suicidal Behavior: Warning Signs

Although this list is not exhaustive and these behaviors are not always indicative of suicidal intentions, some of the most common warning signs include:

  • Expressing hopelessness. As many as three-quarters of people who commit suicide did previously tell someone about their feelings of hopelessness, desperation or seeing death as an escape.
  • Putting their affairs in order. Sometimes, a person who is planning on committing suicide will undertake preparatory actions such as giving away their valued possessions and, although perhaps indirectly, saying goodbye to loved ones.
  • Making and initiating a plan. A very serious warning sign that someone is suicidal is if they have considered the practical steps of exactly how they will commit suicide — even more so if they have begun carrying out those steps, such as acquiring a weapon or pills.
  • Previous suicide attempt(s). Statistics suggest that up to half of people who commit suicide had attempted it at least once before.

Signs of severe depression are important to recognize as well, including extreme, frequent agitation or irritability, excessive and potentially dangerous use of drugs and/or alcohol, noticeable withdrawal from socializing, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, and neglect of appearance and personal hygiene.

However, it is important to remember that a depressed person is not necessarily a suicidal one — although most suicidal people are severely depressed, most people coping with depression are not suicidal. If you suspect your friend may be considering harming themselves, talk with them honestly and non-confrontationally about your concerns.

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