The realisation that someone you care about is feeling suicidal can represent the beginning of a stressful and upsetting time.
Their feelings may come as a shock to you.
You may feel as though you don’t want to deal with it or hear any more about it. You might not be sure what to say to the person, or be worried that you’ll say the wrong thing and make things worse. On learning that someone you care about is suicidal, you might feel anxious, afraid, frustrated, helpless, distressed or hopeless. You may feel angry with the person or resent them. Your own beliefs about life and death may be confronted or challenged.
These are all understandable ways of reacting to a serious and distressing situation, and should serve as a reminder to look after yourself during this time.
It is important that you try not to let your feelings and reactions interfere with talking openly with the person you are concerned about, so you can attempt to understand their situation and make a judgement about their risk of attempting suicide. Appearing calm and confident in your approach to the crisis can be very reassuring for a person who is feeling suicidal.
The suicidal crisis – a psychological injury
It is sometimes helpful to think of the suicidal crisis as being like an emotional or psychological version of a physical injury or trauma. While the situation is not necessarily as simple or straightforward as this, the analogy can be useful in understanding what the person is going through.
As a support person, your initial role is similar to performing physical first aid. You assist the person to stop the ‘emotional bleeding’ and ensure they have access to mental health professionals to support them in the healing process. If someone broke a bone or had a heart attack, you wouldn’t take on the responsibility for treating it. You would understand that the person needs the intervention of professionals and experts, like doctors and surgeons.
Just like these physical traumas, the psychological trauma of a suicidal crisis also requires professional assistance, and it is best to encourage the person you’re concerned about to seek help from doctors or psychologists.
This doesn’t mean you won’t play a part in the longer term for the person. Your care, concern, support and ‘listening ear’ will be of great benefit in their recovery.
Is it my fault that they feel suicidal?
Sometimes people think it is their fault that someone close to them is feeling suicidal. This is sometimes more common after relationship break ups or when a child feels suicidal.
It may be that the suicidal person is saying this to you explicitly, or it may just be that you feel a sense of guilt or responsibility for the way they feel, as if you have done something to cause them to feel that way.
It is critical that you understand that it is not your fault. The feelings and thoughts of the suicidal person are based upon factors largely outside your control, including:
- their personal interpretation of the stressful situations, events or traumas that they are going through or have been through in the past
- the way they view the future, which may well appear hopeless or bleak.
Looking after yourself
Supporting someone who is feeling suicidal can take a tremendous amount of energy and time. It can be common to feel burdened and drained by the responsibilities of your support role. You may even feel guilty that you are not doing enough. These are all natural responses to a stressful situation.
It is important that you don’t face the situation alone. Ensure you take care of yourself and share the responsibility by talking to someone, who may be either:
- a person who is also concerned about or close to the suicidal person, or
- an external person like a friend, colleague or professional (either face to face or over the phone)
Talking to someone outside of the situation, such as a family member or friend, counsellor, or telephone helpline, can be vital in getting you the support you need. It’s important to allow yourself a space to talk about how the situation is affecting you, so you can identify and respond to your own needs and develop coping strategies to better manage the situation.
It can also be helpful to ask how much time and energy you can realistically give to the situation. If it begins to take over your life, you can quickly become burnt out and exhausted, which is no help to either yourself or the person you’re trying to support.
Make sure you allow yourself a break from supporting the person you’re concerned about to look after yourself and ensure you’re making time to continue to do things that are enjoyable and important to you. Also, pay attention to your physical health and wellbeing, and ensure you’re eating properly and getting enough sleep.
During such a difficult time, it’s important to keep an eye on your own stress levels. You may wish to consider some of the following strategies to reduce your stress, such as:
- listening to music
- enjoying the outdoors
- exercising regularly