How to Help Someone Experiencing Suicidal Thoughts

Registered social worker and Inkblot therapist Stephanie Bogue Kerr shares how to recognize the warning signs and offer support

It can be difficult, uncomfortable and even stressful to talk about suicide, especially when addressing concerns about suicidaility with those we love.

The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our collective mental health – with strain reaching an all time high. With more and more people experiencing with stress, depression and in some cases thoughts of suicide, it’s important to learn how to support those who are struggling.

“The pandemic has really shone a light on whatever instability or insecurity people had in their lives before,” says Stephanie Bogue Kerr, a Registered Social Worker and therapist on the Inkblot platform. “Whatever mental health issues people were managing in their lives, pre-pandemic, have now been exacerbated.”

Bogue Kerr notes that while many of us may be afraid to do or say the wrong thing when we see someone who seems at risk, creating space for others to talk about their suicidal feelings can play an important role in prevention.

“We may see this struggle in our family and friends before anyone else,” says Bogue Kerr. “So we must remain open to having these conversations, to the best of our abilities. Everyone has a part to play.”

Recognizing the Warning Signs

It can be difficult to know if our friends, coworkers or family members are thinking about suicide; but we can be mindful of the warning signs that make suicide more likely. According to Bogue Kerr, these signs can be both emotional and behavioural.

People who are contemplating suicide may express feelings of hopelessness. It may be more difficult for them to engage or find enjoyment in certain things they once found enjoyment in because of these feelings. “You may notice that they stop attending to things that used to be important to them,” says Bogue Kerr. “They might stop attending to their hygiene. There may be a certain level of neglect for these types of things.”

If your loved one is struggling to find meaning in their life, you may also see that they are finding it hard to connect with others. For those with suicidal thoughts, it is common to withdraw from social connections and to stop engaging with people as they had in the past. Changes in mood may also be a warning sign that someone is struggling with low mood and at risk. They may express feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, low self-esteem or self anger.

The actions of your loved one can also provide insight into their mental wellbeing and suicide risk. They may make jokes or talk an unusual amount about death and suicide. They may begin researching suicide and formulating a plan. Bogue Kerr mentions that individuals may start engaging in dangerous, high risk or self-harming behaviors. You may observe your loved one giving away meaningful items or writing letters;  “there can be a general sense of figuring out how to tie things up,” says Bogue Kerr.

How to Help

If you recognize any of these warning signs in your friends, coworkers or family, Bogue Kerr shares some advice on how to approach this difficult, but important conversation.

  1. Be calm and actively listen. “It can be hard to engage in a conversation about why someone doesn’t want to continue living, especially when we care about the person.” says Bogue Kerr. “But, if we’re not open to listening, we can’t understand it.” She notes that those who are thinking about suicide are more likely to talk to a friend or family member before they talk to a mental health professional, so it’s important to remain open to having these discussions: “It’s okay not to know what to say. Just by listening and being open to the conversation, you are already making a big difference.” Try to avoid using judgemental or instructive phrases such as ‘don’t say that’ or ‘things will get better’, Bogue Kerr suggests. These phrases can cause the individual to shut down and prevent them from saying what they truly want to say. Instead, try to meet the person you’re concerned about where they’re at.
  2. Use Direct and Precise Language. “We often clean up the language surrounding topics that we are uncomfortable with or are afraid of,” says Bogue Kerr. “If you’re reaching out to someone who you think is struggling, it is important to be direct and use the precise language around the issue.” Avoid asking questions such as ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ as they can be vague and open to interpretation. “Hurting yourself” can mean a lot of different things and it may be hard to truly understand what the individual means with a simple yes or no. Instead, ask questions like ‘Are you thinking about ending your life?’ or ‘Have you ever had thoughts about suicide?’. In doing so, you can more clearly understand the feelings of the person you’re concerned about and open up a genuine conversation about suicide. Discussing suicide directly and compassionately with a person at risk can play a large role in prevention. While some people may worry that asking about suicide can cause a person to act on their feelings; this is not the case. Having open conversations about suicide demonstrates to the suicidal individual that they are not alone and that there are people who are available to listen and help.
  3. Take all threats of suicide seriously. Talking or joking about suicide or death is often a way for people to indicate that they need help. If someone is speaking in this manner, ask them openly if they mean what they are saying.
  4. Reach Out for Additional Support. "As much as the individual isn’t alone in their experience of feeling suicidal, you are also not alone in trying to support them.” says Bogue Kerr. “Reach out to different resources and have the conversation that you’re capable of having with them.” Bogue Kerr suggests consulting suicide prevention hotlines, 911, or a therapist for additional support: “It is important that someone who is comfortable and trained in delving into that discussion more deeply can follow up with the individual at risk.”
  5. Finally, remain with the person if they are at acute risk. If someone is at acute risk of self harm, do not leave them alone. Call 911 or emergency services and wait with them until help arrives.

Talking about suicide can be uncomfortable and hard. But know that have a conversation with an individual about suicide is just one step in the prevention process. “This is something that we all may be uncomfortable talking about. But, being open to that discomfort is what will actually allow us to help those around us.” says Bogue Kerr. “Remember that you don’t have to know exactly what to say, just listen and connect them with someone who can pick it up from there.” If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please reach out for professional help. In an emergency, call The Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566. For ongoing support working through difficult thoughts and feelings, connect with an Inkblot therapist today.

Inkblot

Stephanie Bogue Kerr

Stephanie Bogue Kerr is a Registered Social Worker, University of Ottawa PHD candidate and therapist with Inkblot. You can reach her through the referral code: STEPHBK