One person dies by suicide every 40 seconds across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 800,000 lives are lost to suicide every year. It is also the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15-29 globally. The onset of COVID-19 has created further mental health challenges and has potentially caused a suicide epidemic.
While these statistics are alarming, the issue becomes far more challenging to navigate when it is someone close to us that expresses suicidal thoughts. It is natural to be taken aback and confused when a loved is in such a crisis, but it is necessary to remain calm and respond to the situation in a judgment-free manner.
In such scenarios, we can often let our own emotions related to the episode take a backseat. But acknowledging your feelings, whether it’s fear, anger or sadness is paramount. You may also feel anxious about their future or feel as though you have experienced trauma, which are all valid reactions that need to be taken into consideration as you serve as a support system for another person.
We spoke to Meghana Devotta, a therapist and researcher at Kaha Mind, on how you can help a loved one experiencing suicidality while also prioritizing your mental well-being.
Create a safe space
Individuals in crisis need to know well in advance that you can provide a supportive space for them. Helpful actions include speaking consistently about mental health in an empathetic, non-blaming, and non-stigmatizing way. Acknowledge environmental stressors like hostile relationships or toxic workplaces and socio-political issues.
Be aware of local laws
Know the regulations around mental health crises and which hospitals and mental health professionals can be accessed during times of distress.
Check helpline numbers
Before giving out suicide helpline numbers, verify if they are credible, functional and a safe option to access. Adverse experiences or lack of response can further aggravate a mental health crisis.
Provide an open space to talk. It’s important to communicate that you see their distress, that you care for them and want to help. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t interrupt, invalidate, or tell them how to feel.
Don’t leave them alone
If they’re not up for a conversation, it’s OK to sit with them in silence. Don’t guilt or push them into talking. Bring in people that the individual trusts and is comfortable with.
Ask for suicidal ideation
Prepare the space by asking open-ended questions that allow them to elaborate on their experiences. You can segue into questions about self-harm or suicidality depending on your rapport with them. These conversations don’t increase risk, it provides a space to talk about thoughts considered taboo. Check if they feel helpless or hopeless about the future.
Continue checking in on them
Don’t place the burden of seeking help on them. Offer to schedule an appointment and go with them to the psychiatrist or therapist. In case of significant distress, go to the psychiatrist first. Even after the crisis, stay consistent by checking up on them.
If you’re a caregiver for someone in severe distress, there’s a very high likelihood of feeling caregiver burnout. Stress, anxiety, and isolation are emotions one can expect to feel. You can provide support and resources to the person in need, but boundaries are extremely important in such situations.
Even as you’re helping, it’s natural to feel moments of frustration and despair that the person isn’t getting “better.”
Check-in with yourself as to how much support you can provide on a short-term and a long-term basis. Ensure that this is communicated somewhere down the line; it might be hard to do this during a crisis so try to have this conversation when they’re feeling more stable and are safe. Actively involve trusted friends and family, you do not have to do this all on your own. Access therapy for yourself if that’s an option and build a support system for yourself.
Even as you’re helping, it’s natural to feel moments of frustration and despair that the person isn’t getting “better.” Be mindful that people can only recover at a pace that works for them. Despite our best intentions, it’s not a process we can rush someone through.
After the crisis, it’s possible that the suicidality aspect is something you’re hyper-aware and vigilant about. However, this is just one aspect of the person’s experience and not the whole part, this is true of your relationship to them as well.
Be sensitive to their triggers and their circumstances, reiterate that you’re there for them. But, also talk to them about all the other things that you share in common and find joy and meaning in.
Help them stay in touch with parts of themselves that can now seem unfamiliar while experiencing such mental health challenges. Remember to take cues from the person as to how they would like to define this episode for themselves.