Suicide Prevention: What to Do
By Rebekah Phelps, LSW, Counselor at Mansfield University
Depression, anxiety, feelings of uncertainty, and thoughts of suicide are higher now than ever. You do not have to be a mental health provider to help someone or make a difference. We can all take steps to protect our own mental health and to help others as well.
September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness month. One frequent question that comes up when talking about suicide prevention is, “What do I do if someone expresses to me that they are thinking about suicide?” This can bring a lot of anxiety and fears for many. Many do not know what steps to take and can often feel uncomfortable when a loved one is expressing thoughts of suicide.
Warning signs that someone may be thinking of suicide include talking about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, making statements about not wanting to be here anymore, searching online for suicide methods, acting recklessly or putting self in danger, extreme irritability, acting extremely different than they normally do, giving away meaningful items (prized possessions), isolating from friends/family, withdrawing from activities, or showing signs of sudden improvement (e.g., drastic and sudden change in behavior of acting joyful/relief).
Here are some steps you can take if a loved one expresses these thoughts:
1. Be There
Be fully present with the person. Put your phone completely away (unless there is an emergency)*. Having our phone in our hands, placed on a table, or in sight can show another person that they are not the most important thing in that moment. It can also put us at risk of distraction if our phone goes off. Put your phone in your pocket, in a bag, or in a drawer. This will let the other person know that they have your full attention. Provide your full attention. Be fully present with that person. Try to not get distracted by others, noises, or external stimuli. Ask the person if they want to go somewhere private or more comfortable if needed.
*Exception to the phone rule: If the person needs medical attention or is imminent risk of harm, please call appropriate services*
2. Body Language
Display positive body language. Non-verbal body language communicates a lot to the other person. In communication, the body communicates over 700,000 signs to another person. The face alone communicates 250,000 signs. Thus, body language is highly important in communication. Crossed arms, lack of eye contact, looking at watch/phone, frowning, eye rolling, looking around the room, invading personal space of the other person, slumping, and scrunched up face, can convey to the other person a negative response. This can deter the person from talking or opening up to you. Instead, try open body language (arms uncrossed), appropriate level of eye contact, relaxed face, upright posture, keep head up, and look interested to communicate trust and support to the other person.
3. Show Support
Reassure them that you hear them, that you care, and that you are listening. Thank the other person for sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with you. You can say, “I know this must be hard for you to talk about. Thank you for sharing this with me.” Reassure them that you love/care for them no matter what. Saying “we” rather than “you” can make the other person feel less fearful. For example, saying, “We are going to get through this together” can communicate that they are not alone.
4. Be Direct
If you are concerned the other person may be thinking about suicide, be direct with them. One common myth that exists is the belief that if we ask about suicide, it may cause the other person to have suicidal thoughts. Instead, being direct provides clarification and allows the other person with the opportunity to express their thoughts freely. Directly ask the other person, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” Being direct can allow for you and the other person to obtain the needed resources.
5. No Judgement
Avoid passing any kind of judgement to the other person. For example, refrain from saying, “You’re not thinking about killing yourself, are you?” Other forms of judgement can include, “Think about what that would do to me and your loved ones,” or, “Why would you ever think that way?” Do not assign any kind of negative value to the thoughts by telling the other person their thoughts are stupid or not helpful. What the other person is experiencing is valid.
6. Remain Calm
Hearing someone voice thoughts of suicide can be scary. We tend to engage in mirroring, which is acting the same way as those around us. If we are panicked, that can cause the other person to panic. If we are calm, that can help the other person remain calm. Thoughts of suicide does not always mean someone is in immediate danger. Take your time with them. Allow them to talk. Listen to hear them and understand; don’t listen just to respond.
7. Help Them Connect
Connecting someone to a professional can be the most difficult for you and them. This can be a scary experience. Reassure the other person that there is help. You can say, “I hear that you are struggling. I think it would be extremely helpful and beneficial to talk to someone that can help you get through this” or “Reaching out to a professional is a strong thing to do. Every single one of us needs to talk to someone on occasion. It can make a huge difference.” This will help the other person feel understood, not alone, validated, and may reduce fears.
Offer to help the person connect to the professional. Let the other person know you would be willing to call a professional with them or sit with them during this difficult time. Offer to drive or walk to the appointment with them. Having a support system can make the experience less frightening.
8. What if They refuse?
If the person is NOT in danger, do not push. Rather, provide them with resources for when they are ready. Continue to let them know that you will be there to support them in any way that you can. Remind them that other options are available if they are not ready for face-to-face interactions. Remind them that they could call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or they can text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If the person is in immediate danger (i.e., expressing that they want to kill themselves) stay with that person until that person is in contact with a professional. Help that person remove any lethal means. Contact the local crisis line at 877-724-7143, campus police at 570-662-4900, or 911 if needed. This can be difficult to do, but by doing this, you may just save that person’s life. If a friend or loved one talks or behaves in a way that makes you believe they may attempt suicide, don’t try to handle the situation alone. Get help.
- 911 if needed
- Tioga County Crisis Line: 877-724-7143
- MU Campus Police: 570-662-4900
- MU Counseling Center (Monday to Thursday: 8:30AM to 4:30 PM, Friday 9:30 AM-4:30PM): 570-662-4436
- 24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)
- 24/7 Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741-741
- SAMHSA Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse): 1-800-662-HELP(4357)
- Veterans Crisis Line: Send a text to 838255
- RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE(4673)
- The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386