How Can We Help Someone with Suicidal Thoughts?
We are experiencing greater burnout than normal and need ideas to help us through.
This post is personal advice and not a professional opinion.
Burnout has been worse this year for me and others. Personally, I have self-harmed multiple times and tried to die by suicide twice and I know of four adults who have died by suicide recently. I believe we all know someone who has passed away or is suffering emotionally, besides those suffering from COVID-19.
After a very rough night in January, I contemplated how we can address these problems. First, I wondered how loved ones felt. I asked how my parents felt when my siblings or I experienced suicidal ideation or attempts. My mom responded that she felt “helpless.” My dad concurred. At times, I felt helpless to assist my siblings when they suffered suicidality too.
Despite this feeling of helplessness, my family and I have helped each other through our mental illness struggles. Other friends, family, professionals, and strangers have helped too.
Here are the contents of what I will cover:
- Modeling healthy behavior
- Accepting your efforts
- QPR training
- Recognizing suicidality is complex, and not anyone’s “fault”
- Recognizing suicidal expressions are usually a desire to end the pain
- Being kind
- Holding each other accountable
- Following your gut
- Seeking professional help
- Ideas for when a loved one is on a waitlist
This may seem simple, but self-care enables you to have a clear and active mind. Your thoughts and actions to help others will flow more freely. Some basics of self-care include sleep, a balanced diet, exercise, meditation, social interaction, and spiritual practices. Make these basics easy to do and part of your routine.
How do you practice self-care?
Model Healthy Behavior
Modeling self-care will show your loved ones how to take care of themselves. Some of them will follow your example, but others may not. Keep modeling healthy behavior anyway. With some self-care routines, you can invite your loved ones to join you. For example, my mom invited me to walk with her in the morning.
What self-care activity do you think your loved one would enjoy?
Accept Your Efforts as Worthy
As humans, we will fail each other. You will fail your loved one at some point. However, you can use those failures to know how to do better next time. Successful people are the ones who fail the most and learn from their mistakes.
Many times, we can’t do much to help our loved ones, but we can do something. Work on what you can do within your physical and mental limitations. It may be small, but it adds up. Sometimes what you do will be a small act in a host of larger acts that will help someone recover.
So please don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you haven’t done enough. You can only do what you were emotionally, physically, and spiritually capable to do at the moment. Your efforts are imperfectly perfect.
Besides, you really don’t know all the good you do.
Like a dandelion seed, your small act can seed blossoms in every yard.
QPR (Question, Persuade, or Refer)
I am unfamiliar with QPR, but I know that it is training to identify and help someone contemplating suicide. Individuals can train in QPR to act as informed gatekeepers to “recognize the warning signs of suicide[,] know how to offer hope[, and] know how to get help and save a life.” The website lists “the known warning signs of a suicide crisis: expressions of hopelessness, depression, giving away prized possessions, talking of suicide, [and] securing lethal means[.]” For QPR training and further information, visit this website.
Along with this, don’t hesitate to ask your loved ones if they feel suicidal. I appreciate it when my family and friends will do this, despite how awkward it may feel. I will also ask my boys, husband, or others the same question when I see warning signs.
For advice on how to ask your loved one such a tough question, read this NAMI article.
What do you know about QPR?
It Is Not Your Fault, But a Variety of Factors
Sometimes we blame ourselves if a loved one self-harms or even dies by suicide. Occasionally, a loved one will blame you or others for their self-harm. But it is rarely someone else’s fault, or even the loved one’s fault. People’s poor actions may contribute to someone’s suicidality. These actions usually are abuse, severe shaming, bullying, restrictive government regulations, or fearmongering. It is a complex web of stress factors that lead to someone choosing suicide.
To explain this web, I occasionally blame my husband or another loved one for not being present enough. For example, nine months into my marriage I stayed home from a church meeting while my husband attended. I tried to guilt-trip him to stay home with me. He chose to practice spiritual self-care. While at the meeting, my husband sent his thoughts heavenward that I would be okay. I was angry with him when he returned. I said I almost didn’t make it, which was partially true. In reality, several factors played into my suicidality:
- A bishopric counselor shamed me during my BYU ecclesiastical endorsement interview. He said I wasn’t thankful enough because I hadn’t properly done my visit teaching (despite my best efforts).
- I had experienced sexual and religious harassment at a previous job where the employer and an Idaho Human Rights Council employee called it free speech.
- I experienced betrayal trauma from an intimate relationship.
- I felt shame over my continued attraction to a previous crush.
- I overextended myself by taking too many college courses.
- I suffered from burnout, SAD, and bipolar “spring fever.”
- I was switching medications.
Ultimately, my suicidality wasn’t directly someone else’s fault, but a combination of a few people mistreating me, mental illness, and my actions. The people who mistreated me are culpable for their actions and some of the effects on me, but not my reactions. I chose my reactions (while under the influence of mental illness) to their mistreatment.
Overall, it is too complex to “fault” anyone for a loved one’s suicide.
Has a loved one ever blamed you for their suicidality? If so, how did you deal with it?
Recognize They Want to End the Pain
A loved one may say they want to die, but what they most likely mean is that they want to end the pain. I know that’s the case for me. So to help someone, we need to look at how we can help them handle the pain in a healthy way. Often validating their feelings helps considerably.
We need to treat ourselves and others with kindness and patience because we are all “children” learning how to live. When we focus on kindness to all, we will have a greater influence on others. And the chances of intentionally hurting someone diminishes.
Hold Each Other Accountable
As mortals, we hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally. Your loved one will hurt you, and you will hurt your loved one. As a consequence, we need to hold ourselves accountable and our loved ones accountable. We can do this kindly and firmly. We can develop ways to kindly express hurt, employ reasonable consequences, and foster forgiveness with one another.
About two decades ago, my family and I had to hold my brother accountable for wrongdoing for him to receive additional mental health care. One afternoon, my brother destroyed parts of the house, charged at me with a knife, and threatened to kill me. My other brother knocked him down while I called the police. The police and an emergency counselor helped calm my brother. My parents charged him, which put my adult brother under state custody.
My family and I acted with love so my brother would receive vital help. Occasionally, I yelled at my brother that everything wrong was his fault and I apologized. And my brother apologized in his own way. We forgave one another. I knew his actions stemmed largely from mental illness and anxiety.
With help from his social network, my brother now has a stable life, marriage, and family.
What is your experience holding a loved one accountable?
Seek Professional Help
You and your loved one need additional help to overcome suicidality. Depending on the situation, a loved one will need a therapist, a doctor or psychiatrist, group therapy, or medication. You will need a support network too, whether that be friends, family, support groups (like NAMI), a doctor, or a therapist. Caregivers may experience burnout, anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
Did you know that it’s normal for caregivers to experience compassion fatigue?
Follow Your Gut Feeling
We each have an intuition that we may call vibes, a gut feeling, empathy, or a spiritual prompting. Personally, I believe that intuition is our spirits and the Holy Ghost. Our intuition will sometimes guide us when to help another. Almost fifteen years ago, a neighbor followed a spiritual prompting to visit me. I heard her knock while I was attempting suicide. I had prayed for help minutes before. I stopped my attempt and answered the door. She was headed back to her apartment, but she returned and talked with me. Because she followed her intuition, she may have saved my life.
Your experience may not be as dramatic, but it is those small warnings and promptings that will often guide us to help our loved ones. This doesn’t mean our intuition is always accurate or always works, but it does mean it can work. And we can develop that intuition through mindfulness.
What do you call your “gut feeling”? Where do you think this intuition comes from?
For Immediate Intervention
This section is based on a conversation with my counselor. So you know, I am unfamiliar with pinkslipping.
When you need immediate intervention for a loved one, see what you can safely do to stop them from physically harming themselves. Or employ help from others. Call emergency services or take them to the Emergency Room. If they are already injured, they will need medical help.
If a suicidal loved one refuses help in an emergency, asking police or other legal authorities to “pink-slip” or probate an individual allows authorities to speed up the intake process.
“Probating” via an affidavit filed with the court and “pink-slipping” filed by doctors, psychologists, police or other healthcare professionals are the two ways to involuntary hospitalize someone suffering mental health issues.
Through this process, a mental health professional will assess the individual within a 24–72 hour period. After that, a judge must approve the stay based upon the evidence.
Personally, I have not been involuntarily committed, but two of my siblings have. One stayed for several months (under state custody) and the other stayed only a few days. I went to the psychiatric unit voluntarily a few days after I gave myself a concussion. I stayed five days to start new meds. They put me in touch with a psychiatrist upon leaving. That said, I won’t ever voluntarily commit myself again. I reach out for help from my husband, a suicide hotline, or other family members. I schedule an additional appointment with my psychiatrist or therapist if the suicidality persists. The best way is to seek help as early as possible.
Do you know more about immediate interventions?
Ideas for When A Loved One Is on a Waitlist
Currently, there is a long waitlist in some areas for mental health professionals. To fill that gap, a loved one can visit a school counselor, religious leader, support group, regular doctor, or call or text a crisis hotline. For two or three years, I attended a free, peer-led Recovery International support group based on Abraham Low’s cognitive behavioral therapy books.
If a loved one needs financial help, look into temporary disability, charitable organizations, or your church. Psychoeducation can be very powerful too. Many professionals have written workbooks a person can process their emotions through. An individual can employ certain therapies on their own, such as emotional freedom technique (EFT) tapping, journaling 3 good things, and mindfulness.
And the best free therapy is routine, exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, and socializing.
Do you know of other free resources or support groups? Share in the comments.
This article is also published on my personal blog where you can find more content.