How to support a family member who’s thinking about suicide

Father hugging his son at risk of suicide

When a family member is contemplating suicide, or if someone you love has attempted suicide, you might be left feeling anxious, afraid, sad or angry. But there are things you can do to help keep your loved one safe and support yourself and your family. Read below for some tips to help you navigate this difficult time.

What are some signs of suicide risk to look for in a family member?

Some of the strongest indicators of  include statements like “I can’t take this anymore,” “No one can help me solve my problems” or “People would be better off without me.” Statements like these reflect feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed and under severe strain. They’ve been shown to indicate elevated risk for suicide, even among people who deny having thoughts about suicide. Other indicators of heightened risk states include agitation, restlessness and sleep disturbance.

What are some ways to support a family member who’s contemplating or has attempted suicide?

  • Invite them to tell the story of how they got to this point.
    • Listen – this is their story that they’re trusting you with.
    • Be present – giving your full, undivided attention to the person is important.
    • Be open-minded – show a willingness to see things from their perspective.
    • Be neutral – put aside your own views and remain nonjudgmental.
    • Be aware – pay attention to both the person’s words (verbal cues) and unspoken signals (non-verbal cues).
  • Plan meaningful activities to do together.
  • Help them get connected with appropriate resources.
  • Take steps to remove or securely store items and methods that could be used for suicide, especially medications and firearms. If complete removal isn’t possible, back-up options include the use of locking devices like safes, lock boxes or trigger/cable locks. Although removal is probably the safest option, locking devices can slow a person down during a crisis.

Connect with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988

What’s a safety plan and how should a family go about developing one?

Safety plans, also known as crisis response plans, help people to better recognize when they’re experiencing suicidal crises and how to respond effectively to these crises. These plans can be handwritten on an index card or created on a smartphone, and typically include several key steps:

1 Identifying the “warning signs” or indicators of intense emotional distress for the family member at risk.

These warning signs can be things we do (e.g., pacing, crying), things we feel (e.g., sadness, anger), things we think about (e.g., “It’s never going to get better,” “I can’t take this anymore”) or things we experience physically (e.g., headaches, muscle tension).

2 Identifying things the family member can do to calm down or self-distract from the situation.

Some people like to go for a walk, some like to listen to uplifting music, others like to watch funny TV shows and others will play games. There are lots of options. The key is finding things that work for the family member.

3 Thinking about positive things in life that make life worth living.

These are typically people or things in our lives that elicit joy, hope or other positive emotions, such as family members, friends, pets and enjoyable activities. Taking some time to remember and think about these things can help us keep perspective when feeling overwhelmed.

4 Identifying people who the family member can contact when upset.

These people can be friends or loved ones who help us during crises. We don’t necessarily need to tell this other person that we’re in crisis and need urgent help. In many cases, just talking with someone or spending time with someone can help us to take our minds off what’s bothering us and even feel better.

5 Having on hand contact information for professional and crisis support services.

Prepare in advance a list of mental health professionals, local hospitals and the 988 crisis hotline.

What should family members avoid when trying to help someone at suicide risk?

  • Don’t interrupt them to tell them about a time something similar happened to you; hear them out.
  • Don’t try to shame or guilt-trip the person (e.g., saying “Don’t you know how much that would hurt others?”); they may already be feeling a lot of shame and guilt.
  • Don’t say that suicide is “cowardly” or “selfish.”
  • Don’t try to “fix” them.
  • Don’t keep secrets; provide support and help them find the appropriate resources.
  • Don’t wait to hear the word suicide.

Get answers to your questions about suicide risk, treatment and more

What’s a cry for help? Is it dangerous to consider an attempted suicide as a cry for help?

Unfortunately, the phrase “cry for help” is often used to minimize the pain and stress that someone is feeling. To the suicidal person, the phrase can be invalidating or demeaning. Suicide attempts are often done as a method to escape intense pain or stressful situations. If someone has attempted suicide, we should ask ourselves, “What’s the source of their pain?” and “How can I help?”

What should a family member do if a person is in crisis or there’s potential for immediate harm?

If someone’s at risk for immediate harm, family members should encourage the person to call a crisis hotline (988) or go to a hospital for evaluation. In extreme cases, you may need to call 911, for example, when the person is hearing voices telling them to end their life, the person is physically out of control and isn’t responding to you or the person is endangering their life or others’ lives.

How might family members be impacted by a loved one attempting or contemplating suicide? When should they reach out for their own help?

People can experience a range of emotions including anxiety, fear, sadness and anger when they learn about a family member who’s contemplating suicide. There’s no right or wrong time to seek help for yourself. This help and support can come from many sources: other family members, friends, members of one’s faith community and trusted co-workers. Some people also find it beneficial to attend support groups or individual counseling on their own.

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