Tips for Managing When a Loved One is Suicidal
- Family Support
Much of what is helpful when someone is suicidal is often counterintuitive, requiring considered responses, rather than instinctual reactions. In some ways, our power is limited when it comes to suicidality, and if we can accept that, we can engage the power we actually have to manage our own reactions, so we can be an emotional resource for the person struggling.
Here we offer some tips for directing efforts away from changing the suicidal person and towards managing our own emotional reactivity, so that you can be a better support.
Take your distress to someone who has the capacity to support you
Suicidal people are extremely sensitive to the anxiety and panic of others, and easily feel responsible for their upset. It may seem like having people weep about losing them might convince a suicidal person to choose life, but it mostly doesn’t. They are hopelessly under-resourced to deal with other’s distress, and may feel like a terrible burden on their families. When family members stabilise themselves by seeking support elsewhere, be it through a professional help or the wise counsel of a friend, they can connect with their loved one without adding to their suffering.
Let them know your life would not be better without them
The person contemplating suicide is often plagued by the belief that they’re a burden to the people around them. While it may seem unfathomable for loved ones to imagine how someone so loved could think everyone would be better off without them, they often do think exactly this. This belief is inextricably tied with the desire for the suffering to end, both their own and their family’s. You can be helpful by calmly taking a clear position and letting them know that your life wouldn’t be better without them in any way.
Do more listening than talking
We may tend to talk rather than listen if we’re anxious or panicked about a loved one’s wellbeing. While it can be extremely challenging to not say what we think, deep listening is a profound gift to a person in despair. To feel deeply heard is one way of disarming the violence towards the self at the core of suicidal thoughts. It’s also important to bear in mind that suicidal people are extremely sensitive and easily overwhelmed, so when it comes to talking, less is definitely more.
Ask them how you can best support them
Suicidal people may experience some forms of support as intrusive. What might feel supportive to one person is the opposite to another, so an honest attempt to really understand what would feel supportive for them may be really appreciated. Also consider your intentions, and whether your attempt at support is more about settling your own anxiety. Families often administer support that makes sense to them, but feels abhorrent to their struggling loved one. They may take it personally when their loved one responds negatively. This unfortunately can become something else for the suicidal family member to feel guilty about. Everyone wins when there is dialogue about what true support might look like.
Give presence, not advice
Suicidal people are often drowning in unsolicited advice and pressure, which can leave them feeling even more collapsed. Advice may also subtly communicate that someone should be different to how they are, a message that suicidal people are extremely sensitive to, and one that can tip them into further despair. Being fully present to who they are is far better medicine.
Allow them space and privacy
It is instinctual to not want to leave a suicidal person alone, but suicidal people are in the fight of their life and are often utterly exhausted. They are easily over-stimulated and require silence, space and down time. Quiet and privacy are legitimate needs and when these are disallowed by well-meaning family members, it can intensify the struggle. Let them know you respect their need for space, and that you hope they choose to reconnect with you soon. This honours their needs and offers them a lifeline of connection to return to.
Avoid downplaying their suffering
Most of us have learnt that the way to help someone who is suffering is to try to make them see things really aren’t so bad, listing all the things that are wonderful about their life. Doing this inadvertently dismisses the suffering of the struggling person. We cannot convince someone that life is worth living by telling them so and trying to coerce their perspective to match ours. Paradoxically, refraining from downplaying their suffering and instead validating it, offers far greater hope for a shift to occur.
Supporting a suicidal person requires walking the emotional tightrope of managing our own reactivity so that we might be a greater resource. The vast majority of suicidality does not end in completion; a fact which can be enormously settling to keep in mind. Anything that helps us better manage our reactivity and dwell in hope is part of the solution.
If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, contact 000
Lifeline (24-hour crisis telephone counselling) 13 11 14
Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
SANE online counselling support
Byron Private offers an effective pathway to recovery for those struggling with mental health, addictions, and trauma. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out to our clinical team for a confidential discussion on 02 6684 4145 or via our online contact form.