Suicide is a major public health problem. When a family member becomes suicidal, it is a hugely distressing experience that impacts the entire family, and family members often do not know how to act in such a difficult situation. However, while it is completely understandable to feel unsure of what to do, family members play a key role in supporting a suicidal family member and preventing suicide.
The suggestions below are aimed at helping to guide you to respond helpfully to your loved one who is feeling suicidal:
Talk openly and honestly about suicide and do not be afraid to mention the word “suicide”.
A common myth is that asking someone if they are suicidal may increase their distress and risk of suicide. However, the person may actually feel relieved to be asked about it and have a safe place to share their thoughts. If they are not willing to talk, let them know that you are there for them if they want to talk later. Supporting them in feeling that you are there for them can be helpful.
Offer empathy and try not to make them feel like you know exactly how they feel.
You could say something like “I cannot imagine how painful this is for you, but I would like to try to understand”. It is crucial to help them feel understood and not judged. As tempting as it might feel, you do not need to find an answer, or completely understand why they feel the way they do. Listening to what they have to say will at least let them know you care.
A person who becomes suicidal should always be assessed by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist ASAP.
This is because underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, can lead to suicidality, thus it is important to get appropriate treatment for them. If they are anxious about seeing a mental health professional, offer to accompany them and encourage them to accept help.
When your loved one is not at immediate risk of suicide, help them in creating a safety plan.
If they are seeing a professional, you may consider enlisting their support. The safety plan is a written list of coping strategies and resources the person could use to help them navigate their suicidal feelings and urges. For example, the safety plan could include self-soothing resources, and people they could reach out to such as family members, close friends or crisis support services. If you want to find out more about how to create a safety plan, consider visiting the Samaritans website at here
Mitigate any Immediate Risks
If you are worried that your loved one is at immediate risk of suicide, remove anything they could use to harm themselves with (for example, sharp objects such as razor blades and knives; cleaning products; drugs or medication; guns; and belts cords, wires, and rope), stay with them, and get emergency help.
Supporting a suicidal family member can take a huge toll on your mental and physical health.
You might find yourself feeling upset, confused, guilty, angry, or scared when trying to prevent suicide. These are all normal responses. But you need to remember that you cannot help your loved one if you are not okay yourself. It is therefore important to take care of your physical and mental health needs by, for example, eating regularly, getting enough sleep, engaging in self-soothing activity, and sharing your feelings and worries with a close friend or a therapist.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.