Editor’s note: California-based clinical psychologist Andrew Mendonsa, PsyD, will present a 90-minute web conference about adult suicide risk assessment starting at 9 a.m. PDT on July 26, 2013. The presentation is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members, and is good for 1.5 continuing education credits. For details, or to register, please click here.
One stressful and anxiety-provoking situation reported by professionals and the general public is dealing with a client, friend, or family member who might be suicidal. This article is intended to provide a few resources and tips for handling such a situation. Please remember first and foremost that if someone’s life is in danger, dial 911 immediately.
There is a misconception that asking a person about suicide might give him or her the idea to do so. Volumes of research and numerous studies have shown this to be untrue. Bringing the topic out into the open for discussion actually is quite helpful. When you ask, you get information, and with that you can take action.
There is a big difference between “If I didn’t wake up one day I would be happy” and “I wish I was dead, and given the next opportunity I plan to kill myself.” Without enough information, you might over- or under-respond.
After asking a loved one about his or her suicidal thoughts, how do you handle the information provided? This is where details are important. Does the person have a plan for how he or she wants to end life? Does he or she have the intent and desire to die? Does he or she have the means to carry out such a plan (firearms, pills, access to bridges or high places)? What is the likelihood the person will be rescued/found in time to save his or her life? Determining answers to these questions will help you decide the next steps. Is the person intoxicated or on drugs which might cloud his or her judgment? These details can also assist professionals who may render care.
Remember: If an individual has the intent, a plan, and the means to attempt suicide, call 911 or seek clinical intervention immediately to protect that person’s life.
Depending on the information provided by the person, you have to decide how to respond. Working with the person instead of making decisions for the person is always preferable. If you are unsure how to proceed with, put the person in contact with a mental health professional or contact a suicide crisis line in your area or the national suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255).
Sometimes a person may not want help or refuse to participate, in which case you have to make the decision to call 911 or take action against the person’s wishes. Sometimes a person needs to see a therapist or health care professional for therapy and/or medication. Other times, supportive contact from friends or family might be the solution.
Whatever the situation, remind the person that you are there to support him or her and will remain a support source during and after the crisis. Remember to reinforce his or her reaching out for support. Suicide has been painted as a “don’t talk about it” concept in our society. Helping a person overcome that perception can help him or her feel better about reaching out in the future. If you feel you cannot handle a person in crisis, that’s OK! Help the person get connected with someone else and remain in an ancillary, supportive role. The last thing you want is two people in crisis.
Dealing with a person who is contemplating suicide can be difficult and emotionally exhausting, especially over a period of time. Remember to care for yourself through and after the crisis. Talking to someone else and debriefing, examining reactions and emotions from the situation, exercising, and maintaining your normal routine can help prevent lasting harm to your well-being. We are not born or raised to handle situations such as suicide, so don’t hold yourself to that standard.
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