What To Do When A Friend Says, “I Want To Kill Myself”

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. For those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide, this is a bittersweet day. Bitter because prevention failed in our loved one’s case; sweet because it is an opportunity to heighten awareness about and compassion towards those who are challenged by mental illness, and because that alone may save a life.

During the days before he died, Julian mentioned to several people that he was planning to kill himself, how he would do it, and when. I was stunned when I learned this. At first I was enraged, but then I looked inward to assess whether I would have had the wherewithal (at the age of a youngish 20-something) to take action. And the honest answer was, “No.” Not unless I felt better equipped to handle the situation in a smart and safe way.

So in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day, and in honor of the memory of my son, here’s hoping you’ll feel better equipped after reading this. I wrote this with a high-school/college aged audience in mind, but there’s good information here regardless of your age.

When a friend says to you, “I’m thinking of killing myself” don’t ignore it. Ask about it. Be curious. Let him know you are taking his comment seriously and you want to hear what he has to say. It’s possible your friend is making a flippant remark, but what if it’s serious? Here’s what you can do – as a good friend – for someone who’s sounding depressed:

  • Just Listen. Seriously. Let your friend spew. All you have to do is be there.
  • Don’t problem-solve or give advice. It’s not your job or responsibility to have any answers.
  • Do validate your friend’s experience: “Wow, I can see how that would feel so scary, depressing, freaky, shitty, fucked up, overwhelming.” [You pick the adjective that feels right.]
  • Don’t judge or criticize or tell your friend “It’s not so bad” or “Why would you want to kill yourself over that/him/her?” All pain is relative. Each of us has a different threshold for it.

If your friend is showing signs of depression or is talking in general or vague terms about suicide, there are some really good resources out there. Start with The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. You and your friend can check it out together.

If the danger feels more serious or imminent, here’s what you can ask to determine your friend’s state of readiness regarding suicide:

  • Do you actually have a plan for how you would commit suicide? [be direct; use the word “suicide” in your question; you’re not planting any ideas in your friend’s head; you’re acknowledging and validating his pain.]
  • Do you actually have the means (i.e., the pills, the gun, the knife, the rope, whatever) for carrying out this plan of yours?
  • Have you decided when this is going to happen?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then it’s time to get someone else involved. These are “red flags.” Your friend has moved from fantasizing about suicide to formulating steps towards making it happen. A line has been crossed that could be life threatening if ignored.

Understand that your friend is not weak or stupid or crazy. Your friend is tired and desperate and has lost hope. His pain now outweighs his perceived resources for coping with the pain. More than wanting his life to end, your friend wants the pain to end; there’s a huge difference, but to your friend it feels the same.

Listening with genuine curiosity and empathy is a reminder that someone cares. He is less likely to feel alone with whatever his burdens may be. This in itself is a huge gift. It eases the pressure, but does not get rid of the underlying causes, so…

Think of this listening part as a first step. As someone who is not trained to handle a potential suicide, you need to “call in for back-up.” If at all possible, do so while you still have your friend on the phone or online with you. Otherwise, contact someone else as soon as possible.

  • Option #1: Call a family member or another friend of the person you’re concerned about. Family/other friends may know your friend’s history with difficulty coping, and may have access to phone numbers for your friend’s therapist, psychiatrist, AA sponsor, or another professional who has an ongoing relationship with your friend, and is trained to handle situations like these. If there isn’t a professional in your friend’s life yet, family members are more likely to pursue finding a professional for your friend to meet with. That professional can then provide appropriate support and assistance.
  • Option #2: Call a family member or friend of yours; ideally, someone with a little more life experience than you. Examples: your own parents, a respected teacher or employer, a spiritual leader, even a friend or colleague of your parents. The idea is to have clearer heads (clearer than your friend’s for sure, and perhaps clearer than your own) contributing to exploring resources.
  • Option #3: Call a crisis or suicide hotline. 1-800-273-TALK is the # for the national suicide prevention lifeline, available 24/7. Also, many college campuses have their own mental health services. Inform the staff member of the conversation you’ve had with your friend, what you’ve learned about your friend’s “readiness” regarding suicide, and ask for advice. These people are trained for this. Chances are they’re going to suggest something I’ve mentioned here, but you may feel more comfortable discussing this with a “stranger” and remaining anonymous.
  • Option #4: If you live close enough, go to your friend. Break the isolation barrier. People who are seriously considering suicide rarely want an audience. Even people who go to public places to commit suicide (like tall buildings or bridges) want to act surreptitiously because they don’t want to be stopped. But understand that this alone, without assistance from people who are trained to deal with a potential suicide, may not be enough. [IMPORTANT NOTE: If your friend has admitted to having a firearm or other weapon in his possession, then I do not recommend this option. Do not put yourself in danger by trying to prevent someone who is armed from committing suicide.]
  • Option #5: Call 911. Explain that you know of someone who is seriously considering suicide, and you’d like them to do a “wellness check” or “health check.” [You’ll need to provide an address. If you don’t know it, get it from someone who does.] The police will be dispatched to your friend’s location, and will see that he gets psychiatric care ASAP if warranted. But let someone else know about what’s going on besides the police, because once your friend is released from police and/or hospital custody, he’ll be back at home by himself, possibly still believing death is a good idea, without any additional and necessary support. Getting the police involved should really be a last resort. They are trained to secure your friend’s safety by doing whatever it takes – including physically overpowering and/or restraining the person if there is resistance. But make no mistake; if it’s the only option you have, it’s better than doing nothing. Remember the alternative: one dead friend.

But My Friend Doesn’t Want Me To Do or Say Anything!

Doing something contrary to your friend’s insistence that you say nothing to anyone, can be challenging. Especially if your friend is making threats like: “I’ll never talk to you again if you tell anyone,” or “Our friendship will be over if you break our confidence,” or “I’m telling you and no one else because I trust you and know you won’t say anything to anyone.”

This is what we call “emotional blackmail.” Don’t fall for it.

  • “But I’m his friend! He begged me.”
  • “I don’t want to violate his trust.”
  • “I couldn’t bear it if he refused to ever talk to me again.”

Here’s the catch: if your friend is dead, he can’t be your friend any longer. And honestly, which scenario is worse? (a) Your friend alive but not talking to you, or (b) Your friend dead and not talking to anyone ever again?

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-aged men and women. SECOND! I don’t know about you, but that’s a statistic I can live without.

Finally, when someone shares with you that he wants to end his life, and he has a plan, and he has the means, and he’s decided when it’s going to happen, and is actually telling you about it (as opposed to going off silently into the darkness…), this is your classic “cry for help.” The fact that your friend is saying anything about it to anyone else is a sign of ambivalence. There is a part of him – even if only an unconscious part – that wants someone to stop him.

  • Don’t ignore it.
  • Don’t be afraid of it.
  • Don’t mistake it for anything else.
  • Don’t keep it to yourself.

Get support for your friend, and get support for yourself. Because if your friend is truly suicidal, and you take steps to prevent it, your friendship is going to be seriously tested. Muster up the courage and take the risk. A strained friendship can be fixed. Death is permanent.

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