Responding To Thoughts Of Suicide

A loved one who is contemplating suicide presents a sad and frightening scenario, but one that might not be so terrifying if armed with the knowledge of how to respond appropriately. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that thoughts do NOT equal action…it is normal at times for anyone to think about what the world would be like if we were not in it, what the ‘afterlife’ consists of, how our problems would be better if we just didn’t have to deal with them, etc…death and suicide are logical things to contemplate when we go down this train of thought, even if we are only thinking of them out of morbid curiosity.  Typically when someone is considering suicide, they don’t want to be dead so much as they want the pain of whatever they are experiencing to go away, and death is one of the options for accomplishing this (albeit a scary and final one).  Here are some things to keep in mind when you respond:

            1. Don’t be afraid to talk about it with them.  You are not planting a seed or even expressing approval or encouragement by simply discussing what they have been thinking and feeling.  It will be a relief for them to be able to get those thoughts out in the open.  They really need you to listen and validate their pain without trying to solve their problems with meaningless platitude.  Just be with them and reflect how they feel (example:  “It sounds like you feel hopeless about your job situation.”). A lot of suicidal thoughts end here, simply as thoughts that a person has no real desire or intention of acting upon.  Keep reading if things sound more serious, however.

            2.  Establish lethality. If they have disclosed thoughts of suicide, or if you suspect that they have been thinking about it based on some of the statements they have made, ask them more about it (even asking point blank if they have been thinking about suicide). It helps to learn how serious they are by casually asking how they would do it or if they have made a plan– the more formal the plan, the more serious the intent. If they have an idea of how they would do it, if they have means to accomplish their plan (access to weapon of choice and opportunity), if they have a day or time in mind, if they start having ‘farewell’ conversations with people, these all add up to a higher lethality (i.e. a greater risk that they will carry their thoughts into action).

            3.  Use graphic and realistic terminology. If you have established that they have a high lethality and seem fairly serious about turning thoughts into action, then help them to think the entire decision through: how it would feel, who would find their body, how each person in their life would be affected (especially the person who finds them, even if it’s a complete stranger), what sort of bodily functions might take place throughout the process. Also, share how you personally would be affected by this decision. Talking about things in this way will help them to consider the grim reality and finality of such a choice, and the lasting affects it would have on many people. Sometimes people get caught up in the ‘fantasy’ of suicide, and don’t think about the harsh reality of it.  If you can help turn their thoughts in this direction it may help them to keep a more rational perspective on how to respond to their problems.

            4. Maintain contact, and involve others if there is high lethality.  If the person does not seem intent on action, at minimum make a point to contact them frequently to gauge how they are doing and to show your care and concern for them. Try to get them to promise not to do anything without at least calling you first. If there is high lethality, do not hesitate to make significant others aware of the risk. You may be concerned about how they would feel if you break their confidence, but think about how YOU would feel if they acted on their thoughts and you didn’t do more to prevent the situation that you knew was a risk. Don’t take this to mean that you are in any way at fault or responsible for whatever choices another person makes; however, most people would naturally struggle with wondering if they could or should have done more to help. Would you rather deal with anger and hurt that you broke their trust, or a funeral? 

            5. You aren’t in this alone. If you are presented with a suicide-related situation and you really aren’t sure what to do, you can call the free, anonymous crisis hotline for Oakland County (Common Ground) to receive professional assistance. It isn’t just there for people feeling suicidal, but for anyone who is faced with a crisis situation. You can even offer to call on behalf of your friend to help find local resources to help them.  If a threat seems immediate, call 911.

Hopefully you will never have to use any of this information, but keep in mind that if you do, it is a good sign that a person is talking to you about such a difficult and private subject to begin with; it suggests that at least a part of them doesn’t want things to end tragically. And remember, you are not responsible for how another person chooses to deal with their problems no matter how you respond.

Common Ground 24-hour Crisis Hotline: 800.231.1127 


Anyone from anywhere can call, at anytime. I worked at this agency for a number of years as a Crisis Telephone Counselor, and I know firsthand that the staff is incredibly well-trained and extremely helpful and compassionate in these and in many other situations.

Jayna Pyke, MA, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor

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