When someone you care about, or even someone you don’t care about, tells you they’re having thoughts of taking their life, it can make you instantly feel like freaking out. What the actual heck are you supposed to say to that?
Their first instinct may be to immediately grab the person and take them to a hospital or start organizing some sort of 24/7 supervision for the person.
While the intention is good, a big dramatic response usually will not be immediately conducive to the speaker’s well-being.
When someone is in an emotional crisis, it takes a lot of courage to speak out to someone about something so uncomfortable and private. There’s often a huge and ever-present concern the moment it’s finally said out loud, there will be doctors in white coats coming to whisk the person with the feelings off to a padded room.
It’s intimidating and risky to open up in that way and it immediately throws that person into vulnerability.
Though it may be counterintuitive, it may be more comfortable to that person to have more of a gentle life raft than a waterfall of hypervigilant concern.
Remember, this person isn’t being dramatic or just trying to get attention. Saying aloud you have had thoughts, either voluntary or intrusive, of ending your life can sometimes feel like telling someone you have a terminal illness.
Urges and thoughts are a serious thing to admit and should be treated with the same respect anything else would be.
Reiterating how wonderful their life is is very unlikely to help them feel better. Imagine being down and having someone tell you backhandedly your feelings aren’t justified because your life is great and you’re essentially just whining.
As anyone who has ever told an upset woman to “calm down,” has learned, some things just amplify the negativity in a situation instantly and should be avoided for everyone’s best interest.
Mostly, you should just be present. Sit with the person and listen. Ask how you can help and offer to just sit and be still with the person. So often, support can come in the form of just making sure someone isn’t alone.
There doesn’t have to be an activity. Just having another warm body there can make all the difference in the world to someone in pain.
Do more calls and check ins. This looks a lot less like texts every half-hour asking if you’re safe and how you feel, and more like a text saying, “Hey. I was just thinking about you,” or a photo saying, “I saw this and it reminded me of you.”
Something brave you can do, if you’re being honest that is, is share your own feelings and times of despair, if appropriate. Share about those times in high school you maybe felt like driving off a bridge when you and your friends were fighting. Open up about your own depression or struggle.
When someone comes forward to say they’ve been through it and they understand, that’s a valuable resource for hope.
Finally, the most basic thing is to openly love the person.
This doesn’t mean to start buying them gifts or spending all your waking time with them. What it means is you openly appreciate them. Do they make you laugh? Have you had some really silly times together? Talk about it. Remember that fun. Share in happiness with that person.
So, try to remember when someone you love is having a hard time loving their life and trusts you enough to share that with you: Stay calm, encourage them to talk to their therapist and please, please do not freak out.