If your loved one is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, dying, or suicide, you want to help. Today, some 4.3% of the U.S. population experiences suicidal ideation at least sometimes, and 10.5 million of us will be going through it in any given year. If that’s someone in your life, you want to help them – to make it better. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to fix other people. They have to take steps themselves. They also have to have the motivation, mental capacity, and space to get help and to accept help. That can be extraordinarily difficult to sit through when it’s your family member, your partner, your friend. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that you can’t fix this for them and that all you can do is be there for them.
However, there are some steps you can take to be there for your loved one. Offering support, talking, and making certain that your loved one knows that they can ask for help whenever they need it will help. And, that’s the most you can do.
Talking without Judgement
The first step to being there for someone is to be able to talk to them. That often means being able to listen. And, good listening means being able to take in whatever you hear without judgement, without having to offer advice, and with only offering care and support. What does that mean? It means learning how to listen to people talking about depression, death, self-harm, being bullied, and feeling ostracized and socially outcast without judging it. Listening to someone talking about self harm can hurt, but it’s important not to make the conversation about you.
- Responding to what the other person is saying, not to what you are feeling
- Listening without sharing your perspective or story until you’ve first acknowledged their points and made sure they feel heard.
- Leaving out any concern about what other people think or why.
- Leaving out any moral judgements about suicide or self-harm. If you’re morally upset about your loved one’s suicidal ideation, you should figure out how to leave that at the door when you talk to them. It won’t help and it may make things worse.
- Learn to ask good questions, to get to the heart of why someone feels like they do, and to learn to say “your emotions are valid, even if I don’t think you need to feel that way. People can come to suicidal ideation through a number of ways including bullying, low self-esteem, depression, stress, and things being too much. Making them feel listened to can help a great deal.
Each of these can mean doing some significant work on yourself before talking to your loved one. You have to be able to talk about suicide and self-harm with nothing but concern for your loved one. Focusing on putting that concern first, “I care about you, and I want you to be okay” as your main message can help with that.
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Show Up and Help with a Routine
The most important thing you can do for your loved one is to show up and be there. However, if you know someone is struggling, it’s also a good idea to help in other ways. For example, you can work together on improving routine, habits, and the space you’re living in. This is easiest if you share a living space with your loved one. However, you can participate in building routine and being there through that even if you don’t live together.
- Start exercising together and take an hour or two a day to walk, go to the gym, or do something else physical. That can mean stopping by and picking them up and talking to them as well.
- Do chores together. Even if you don’t live together, you can stop by and help with things like laundry or cleaning – although this is a lot of effort if it’s not also your home, and you’ll have to make sure you have the energy and mental space yourself.
- If you live together, try having the same bed time and wake up time at about the same time every day. This won’t help with depression but it will provide stability, which can improve things over the longer term. Taking steps to ensure your loved one gets enough sleep is also a good idea. For example, by turning off screens at least an hour before bed. Or, by moving exercise and caffeine consumption to the morning so it doesn’t keep you awake later.
- Eating well. That can mean doing food prep together. It can also mean having meals together even if you don’t live together. Good eating habits, as in following the general guideline of something like MyPlate.gov can help a great deal with how you feel mentally over time. However, it’s not a short-term solution.
- Make sure they spend time around others in a healthy fashion. That means ensuring that you and others spend time with your loved one in a low pressure environment, even if it’s playing a game, listening to music, or watching a movie. Ensuring that someone with depression or suicidal ideation gets regular and positive contact with other people is important for their mental health.
Eventually, all of these things are steps that you can try to take. However, you’ll need buy-in and motivation from your loved one to do any of them. It doesn’t matter how much you want to organize weekly get-togethers to hang out and watch movies, if your loved one won’t do it, they won’t do it. That’s true with every one of these steps. You can only help so far as your loved one is willing or able to help themselves, and that can be very difficult.
Get Professional Help
It’s important to be aware of what mental health resources you have available to you. That means starting by talking to your doctor. You can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 988. This hotline gives advice and resources as well as directions to professionals for people struggling with suicidal ideation and their loved ones. This means you can ask for support and next steps and get guidance on what to say or do in a situation.
Suicidal ideation is often a symptom of an underlying mental health problem. For many people, that means seeking out professional mental health treatment. For example, behavioral therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR are very commonly used to help people understand, cope with and move past their suicidal thoughts. That can involve months or even years of treatment and some people will never recover from suicidal ideation. However, therapy and treatment will give them tools to better manage those thoughts, so they are safer no matter what their thoughts tell them.
You can work towards getting your loved one into treatment. That means being there for them, suggesting treatment as an option, talking to them when they need it, and being someone they can trust to help. Your loved one won’t go to treatment or therapy until they are ready, however, you can work to let them know that they are worth the effort, that treatment is there, and that you want them to be better, for you and also for them. “I care about you and you deserve this help” can go a long way.