Resource Guide for Family and Friends
When a friend or family member has suicidal thoughts or attempts suicide, it is a traumatic event that impacts the entire family. It is normal to feel scared, confused, or angry. If you are finding it difficult to determine whether or not your family member is at risk of suicide, seek help, and don’t wait. Families and friends play a key role in suicide prevention.
Common Misconceptions about Suicide
Suicide is a major public health problem. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in about one death every 11 minutes.
Myth: Asking someone if they are suicidal may put the idea in their head.
Fact: Asking a loved one about suicide will not make them suicidal. In fact, the person who may be thinking of suicide may feel relieved to be asked about it and grateful to have a safe place to share their thoughts.
Myth: A mention of suicide is not serious enough to require help.
Fact: When a friend or family member has thoughts about suicide, take their words seriously. When someone talks about hurting themselves, this is a warning sign to act and help them. There are many treatment options available that are effective in reducing suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Myth: Treatments don’t work anyway.
Fact: Many well-researched and effective therapies are available to help your loved one, from counseling to medications and other treatments.
Myth: People attempt suicide to gain sympathy.
Fact: A suicide attempt needs to be taken seriously. It is not an attempt to gain sympathy from others, but rather demonstrates significant distress and despair about life. In fact, if your loved one has attempted suicide, there is an increased risk that they may make another attempt. People are said to be at the greatest risk for another suicide attempt or death by suicide within one year after the initial attempt.
Pay Attention to the Risk Factors for Suicide:
- Mental disorders, especially depression, alcohol or drug dependence, eating or conduct disorders.
- Family history of suicide, trauma, physical or sexual abuse.
- History of psychiatric hospitalization and non-suicidal self-harm behavior.
- Chronic physical illness, including chronic pain and/or traumatic brain injury.
- Social isolation, loneliness or hopelessness, and feeling a burden to others.
- Impulsive, reckless tendencies and aggressive or violent behaviors.
- Loss and major events (e.g., relational, social, work, financial, divorce).
- Live in areas where others have recently died by suicide.
- Unwillingness to seek help or have trouble accessing help.
- Access to lethal means (e.g., prescription medications, firearms, knives, and poisons).
- Prior suicide attempt.
Recognizing Warning Signs and Taking Action
In addition to the urgent warning signs mentioned earlier, it is imperative to know these additional warning signs and take action if your loved one is displaying these behaviors, especially if the behavior is new or has increased recently:
- Posting distressing messages on social media.
- Showing dramatic mood shifts and talking about being a burden to others, expressing hopelessness.
- Feeling trapped, like there is no way out.
- Acting reckless; increased use of alcohol or other drugs.
- Sleeping too little or too much.
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and society.
Additional warning signs specific to youth include:
- They have a peer or friend who has died by suicide.
- They have suffered a recent humiliation or embarrassment (e.g., bullying, breakup).
- Their quality of schoolwork is decreasing.
Ask Questions and Listen
- Talk openly and honestly about suicide and don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.”
- Help them feel understood, not accused or blamed.
- Listen to their concerns and take them seriously.
- Your job is to listen so they can talk about the feelings that might be contributing to their distress.
Some examples of what you can say:
“I want to help you. Please tell me what I can do to help.”
“I am here for you whenever you want to talk.”
“I’m here to support you, not judge you.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you are in such pain.”
Get Your Loved One Connected With Care
A person who is displaying warning signs of suicide and/or attempts suicide should always be evaluated by a mental health professional as soon as possible. Untreated underlying mental illnesses can lead to suicidal thoughts and it is important to get appropriate treatment for them, which will ultimately help with treating suicidality. You can help your loved one contact their primary care physician to arrange a mental health screening, and evaluation. You can also find a licensed mental health professional who is trained in suicide prevention and evidence-based treatments. Always remember though to follow the action steps on the inside cover of this brochure if your loved one is demonstrating urgent warning signs and has made a suicide attempt or you are afraid they are about to make a suicide attempt.
The following are some ways to get connected to mental health professionals:
- Look within your insurance’s behavioral health network for providers, usually available on their website or by calling them, to discuss covered options for behavioral health providers.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For TTY users: use your preferred relay service or dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255.
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), PRESS 1. To text, send a text to 838255.
- LGBTQ+ Youth: The Trevor Project has trained counselors who specialize in talking to LGBTQ youth who are in crisis. Call Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7346. To use Trevor Text: text START to 678-678.
- Crisis Text Line: text HELLO to 741741.
Helping Your Loved One During and After a Crisis
As part of your loved one’s care, you may meet many different providers through acute crisis care and follow up. Be prepared to ask your questions again to different people at each step in the process, because the answers may change based on the provider’s role. Remember, you are a crucial part of your loved one’s care, so feel confident to ask any questions you have of the treatment team. Don’t feel rushed. Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t understand. It is absolutely your right to ask questions of your providers, and even to challenge their decisions. Below is a list of questions that can be used in a variety of treatment settings, from an outpatient primary care visit to an inpatient psychiatric facility.
Help Your Loved One Prevent Future Suicidal
When your loved one is not in crisis or at immediate risk of attempting suicide, there are steps you can take to help them cope with distress and prevent a future crisis by creating a safety plan. Stay connected by following up with your loved one to see how they are doing. Give them a call or send a text. This type of contact can increase feelings of connectedness and show your ongoing support. Research shows that brief, supportive, ongoing contact can help reduce the risk of suicide.
Seek Support for Yourself
Caring for loved ones with suicidal thoughts and behaviors is incredibly challenging. Sometimes family and friends can do everything in their power to help a loved one, however, death by suicide or a suicide attempt cannot be prevented. In this case, it is very important to know that it is not your fault and that those with strong suicidal thoughts are suffering from an illness that you are not responsible for treating or preventing. It is imperative that you do not blame yourself or others in this situation and that you get the necessary support for yourself. Some ways to get this support and engage in self-care include practicing healthy coping skills and getting support from friends and family, community groups, and obtaining help from a professional. Don’t be afraid to discuss how you feel with your primary care doctor or look for a mental health professional yourself. Join a peer support group to connect with other families who are going through the same challenges.