As of 2017, the United States alone saw an estimated 1.3 million suicide attempts. Needless to say, suicide, often misunderstood and stigmatized, is a desperately urgent issue in America—and not solely for the people battling it firsthand. Supporting a suicidal friend can be a taxing, often frightening, stressful, and heartbreaking experience. But, being the best support system possible requires you to put yourself and your own needs first.
Easier said than done, though. As any caring and thoughtful friend would be, you’re likely worried about the wellness and safety of the person who you suspect to be in crisis. This situation can lead to bouts of self-doubt (“Am I doing and saying the right things?” or “Am I making things worse somehow?”), but Christine Moutier, MD, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says to trust your instincts. “Asking about suicide will not make someone suicidal if they do not already have those thoughts. Usually people feel relieved to share, especially if you are respectful and compassionate,” she says.
While you should open the lines of communication by asking your friend what they need, know what your own boundaries are, says Dese’Rae L. Stage, suicide awareness activist and creator of Live Through This. “If you’re not in a position where you can help, be honest. Say, ‘I’m not doing too well myself, but here’s a way we can find you help.” Going this route is not only best for you and your own sense of wellness, but it can also make you more approachable to your friend. “It shows how much you truly care about your friend and also allows you to be human and acknowledge you don’t have all the answers either,” says therapist Amanda E. White, MA, LPC, adding that this dialogue can come as a relief to someone who is suicidal, because so many people tend to walk on eggshells around them.
“If you’re not in a position where you can help, be honest. Say, ‘I’m not doing too well myself, but here’s a way we can find you help.” —Dese’Rae L. Stage, suicide awareness activist
Another option for helping your friend without sacrificing yourself is to call in additional support. Stage suggests tapping other friends, especially if you are in a tight-knit group, to make it a team effort of sorts. “Take shifts if you can,” Stage says. “See what [your friend] needs. Are they having trouble in their living space? Do they need help with laundry or dishes? Do they need someone to sit there and watch TV with them and order a pizza? Do they need to get out? [Helping with] things like that are good starters.”
If that arrangement—or any other, for that matter—doesn’t work for you, one thing that certainly can is honesty. Tell your friend you are there in the capacity you can be, whatever that may be, and that you love them. “Let them know they’re supported, even if you can’t necessarily be the one to do it,” Stage says. When you’re having this chat, or any conversation around suicide, it’s best to be direct, open, and a good listener. “People who are suicidal just need to be heard and validated. Even if you don’t agree with them, just say, ‘I hear you, and that sounds really hard.’”
“Focusing on your own health and wellness is important when you are trying to support someone in your life. If you are not well, you won’t be able to be a support to someone else who is struggling.” —Christine Moutier, MD
Dr. Moutier echoes that your time and attention alone can be a huge help. “Know that by simply caring and offering a listening ear and a feeling of support, you are providing them with everything a friend should.”
That said, you yourself may benefit from talking through this ordeal with someone who can guide, support, listen to you. “You are not alone—whether you’re the one struggling or the friend supporting them.” says Dr. Moutier, who says seeking therapy or support groups could be a smart avenue to explore for self-preservation. “Focusing on your own health and wellness is important when you are trying to support someone in your life. If you are not well, you won’t be able to be a support to someone else who is struggling.” In addition to seeking counseling for yourself, she recommends getting regular exercise, eating healthy foods, “and doing whatever you can do reduce your own stress.”
To be your best self—for the sake of your own well-being and ability to be source of support for a friend in crisis—you must always take care of yourself. And doing so, White says, is anything but selfish. “The most important thing is to make sure you are spending time with people who empower you and provide you with energy and love.”
If you or someone you love is suicidal, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8755 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.