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How to help if you suspect someone is suicidal
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In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim shares tips on reaching out to someone you are worried about and talking openly about suicide. - photo by Kim Giles
Question:

I have a co-worker Im worried about. She is really down after some major setbacks in her life and she is joking about death in a way that makes me worried she might kill herself. I try to be friendly and supportive, but I dont know what I should say or do. I cant find the right words and I dont want to overstep or offend her. What should I do?

Answer:

There are 117 people who die by suicide every day in our country. In Utah, we lose one person every 15 hours, and the truth is that almost everyone goes through a time in their life when they think about ending it. This means, it is highly likely there is someone around you right now who is at risk for suicide. If we all understood the signs and how to respond, we could make a meaningful difference.

Research indicates that 80 percent of suicidal people make their intentions known to others beforehand and hope someone will reach out and help. These signals may include making a joke or off-hand comment about suicide. If you pick up on any unusual comment or behavior, you must act on it using the steps below.

You may also want to share this article with friends and family because it would make a huge difference if everyone was educated about what to do if you suspect suicide. This is as important as knowing CPR or any other first aid skill because it can save lives.

Here are some simple steps for what to do if you suspect suicide, from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

  1. Know the warning signs. People who are thinking of suicide often leave clues. They might say things like I cant do this anymore or this just isnt worth it but more often the signs are subtle. There may be sudden changes in behavior, losing interest in things they used to care about, giving things away or shutting down. People who are going through rough life experiences like mental or physical illness, divorce, bankruptcy, loss of a loved one or losing a job are also more at risk. If you know someone is going through a challenging life experience and they are acting different, pay attention and reach out to them. Listen to your intuition and consider anything that is setting off alarm bells in your head a sign to act on.

  1. Ask them directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. (This is the most important thing to do.) I know it is awkward and you may have fear of offending, but do it anyway. All the research has shown that asking openly about suicide is the best thing you can do to help.

    You might say something like, People who go through challenges like yours often have thoughts of suicide, have you been there? You seem really down, will you be honest with me? Are you having any thoughts of killing yourself? In order to help them, you must get the topic of suicide out in the open. Beating around the bush wont help. Ask directly and dont stop if they dodge the question. Once the subject is on the table.

  1. Ask what is going on in their life and listen without giving your opinion or advice. Dont try to fix whats wrong in their life. Just ask whats going on and let them have a safe and quiet space to talk, be heard and supported. This proves someone cares. Say things like, Tell me more about that or That sounds really difficult. At this point, they just need to know someone cares enough to be there and listen to how they feel. Dont panic or get scared because your fear wont help. Stay calm because you are going to involve other people to help. You are not going to handle this by yourself. Also remember that most people dont really want to die, they just want the pain to stop. Often just talking about their feelings lessens the pain.

  2. Ask about their reasons to live. Most people who are having thoughts of suicide are not 100 percent committed to dying yet. They have reasons to end their life, but they also have reasons to live. Find out if they have family members, pets, friends or spiritual beliefs they care about. Ask them to tell you more about these. Say things like, It sounds like you may have some reasons to stay safe for now. Would you be open to letting me help you explore a plan to stick around for now, and find some ways to change the pain you are feeling? If there was a way to stop the pain and make things better, would it be worth exploring? The idea is to focus on reasons to stay safe for now.

  1. Ask directly how serious they have been about suicide, did they have a plan? Ask questions like, Have you figured out how or when you might take your life? This helps you to assess if there is an immediate risk. If their plan is imminent or you feel at risk, you should call 911. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline says if desire, capability and a plan are all there, the person is highly at risk. Getting a person to share their plan will lower that risk. You may also ask if they are willing to dismantle that plan and let you keep them safe for now.

  1. Get lots of professional and family (if there is some) support involved as soon as possible. To keep this person safe, you must get other people involved and broaden the shoulder of responsibility. Talk to the person about whom they would be comfortable bringing in. This may include a spouse, parent, child, religious leader, counselor, doctor, friend or even emergency services.

    Ask if they would be willing to talk to someone at the Suicide Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting START to 741-741. Even if the risk of dying isnt imminent, it would serve them to have additional support and professionals to talk to.

    (I highly recommend everyone put those numbers in your cellphone so you have them if you need them.)

  1. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there to help you too. They welcome calls from people who are worried about someone, not just those who are suicidal. They are always willing to talk you through what to do and say.

Shari Sinwelski, associate project director at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, says, Suicide prevention is everyones responsibility, its not just for clinicians or doctors. People are less likely to go to a counselor or a doctor than they are to show warning signs to their friends or family members.

There is always uncertainty around the decision to die by suicide, and when someone reaches out in love and support, most people respond and are open to other options for dealing with their pain. If there is someone who cares enough to reach out, there is always hope.

Please dont ignore the signs you truly can make a difference.

You can do this.

Read some more great information on suicide prevention on the Crisis Center Website
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