Helping Someone with Suicidal Thoughts

One of the most common laments of family members and colleagues of someone who completes a suicide is that they “should have seen it coming,” and “I wish I could have helped.”  Here are some essential things to know so that you may be more effective in helping someone with suicidal thoughts.

Be familiar with acute risk factors.  There is a long list of acute risk factors, including recently divorced or separated, recent excessive or increased substance abuse, and recent suicide attempts or other kinds of self-harming behaviors.  If the individual expresses a great deal of anger or describes aggressive behaviors, has become isolated or withdrawn or has had a recent psychiatric hospital stay, that is an indication of a greater risk.  If the individual describes himself or herself as being a burden to others, feels trapped, or believes there is no reason to live, there is an increased risk of a suicide attempt.

Listen for information about possible recent trigger events.  If something has happened recently that has caused this individual to feel shame, guilt, or humiliation, these may trigger an increase in suicidal thoughts.  Also, look for signs of recent legal or financial problems as this will often precipitate thoughts of suicide as a means to escape the consequences of such things, especially if the individual believes that a life insurance payout will solve the problem for the survivors.  Also, do not ignore any mention of a recent exposure to suicide – a friend or family member, or even another police officer that has been reported in the media.  This is a significant trigger event.

Know the most common warning signs.  Has this person been talking or writing about death and/or suicide recently?  Even if a person makes vague statements about suicide, remember it is a myth that those who talk about suicide never actually do it, and this is a warning sign.  What about changes in personality, or poor performance at work?  Other common warning signs include getting affairs in order by writing a will, giving possessions away, calling someone “out of the blue,” seemingly to say goodbye.  And a very important warning sign is that the person has suddenly gone from very sad to suddenly very content and peaceful.  This is usually an indication that the decision has been made.

Be willing to ask the tough questions without hesitation.  Here is a list of those tough questions that must be asked:

  • Are you thinking of killing yourself? Be blunt.  Use the word “kill.”
  • How long have you been thinking about killing yourself?
  • Do you have a plan to kill yourself? Get specific information about the plan.
  • Do you have the means to carry out the plan? Remember, every police officer has this.
  • Who is going to find your body and clean up the mess? That may be something the individual has actually never given any thought to.
  • Is there anything or anyone to stop you? There may be religious beliefs, thoughts about people left behind like spouse, children, even pets.

Get someone else involved.  A person is perhaps less likely to attempt suicide in the presence of another person, so getting someone else involved is a logical step to take.  Consider the level of suicide risk in making this determination.  This individual may be a family member, especially if the suicidal person simply needs to talk through his or her issues with someone close.  In the case of law enforcement officers, the local department may have peer support people or a chaplain who can respond and assume control of the intervention.  Remember, if a suicide attempt is imminent, someone needs to be there to get the suicidal person on the line with the suicide prevention hotline or get them to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.

Get agreement that the individual will seek professional help if indicated.  First, never just end a conversation with a suicidal person in the hopes that he or she will not make an attempt to complete the suicide.  Before you conclude, you must get agreement that no attempt will be made, and that the person is able to identify by name who he or she will call if the suicidal thoughts become too intense to control.  And finally, help the person identify a local mental health professional that can be contacted as a resource if the risk of suicide is at anything but the lowest level.  That resource may be the EAP contracted by the department or city, or it may be someone from a directory of professionals in the area.

If you are reading this, and you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, don’t try to walk that path alone – call for backup.  Reach out to us by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/.  IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS NOW, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273-TALK (8255).

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