Suicide Prevention: Guidance for family and friends

I feel suicidal

Your daughter is in the midst of a major depressive episode. She hasn’t said anything about suicide, but you wonder if it’s on her mind. You hurt for her, you’re worried. And you have no idea what to do.

’They may know that a relative or friend is troubled but have absolutely no idea that suicide is a possibility.’

Fact is, the ones closest to someone thinking about taking their life frequently draw blanks when it comes to intervention.

Pretty understandable, if you ask me.

However, one can live in darkness for only so long. Let’s turn the lights on and see what we can see…

An important suicide prevention study

Research has much to say about the suicide prevention know-how of family members, significant others, friends, and colleagues.

For instance…

Dr. Christabel Owens from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, Plymouth UK, led a study that merits our attention.

It seems those closest to someone contemplating suicide have no idea just how imminent an attempt may be, much less what to do about it.

According to Dr. Owens…

Even doctors with many years’ training and experience find it very difficult to assess whether or not a person is at imminent risk of suicide. Family members and friends find themselves in uncharted territory, with no training and little public information to guide them.

They may know that a relative or friend is troubled but have absolutely no idea that suicide is a possibility. The person may give very indirect hints, possibly when disinhibited by alcohol, that they are thinking of killing themselves, but it is difficult for others to know how seriously to take these messages and how to respond to them.

Dr. Owens and team researched fourteen adult UK suicides. None of the victims were receiving emotional/mental health care.

could i have prevented suicide

“This is really hard, but we want to help.”

The team interviewed family members, significant others, friends, and colleagues of those who had completed suicide. They were asked what they’d witnessed in the period leading up to the event. More to the point, they asked how they’d interpreted what they saw.

The warning signal

What the team discovered was those who knew the victims best didn’t always receive clear warning signals. And even when they knew something was seriously wrong, they frequently weren’t able to muster the courage to do something about it.

Why is that?

Those closest to someone contemplating suicide deal with powerful emotional blocks – fear being paramount.

Specifically, it may be a matter of fear of intrusion, which may result in damaging a valued relationship. Simply, it’s about, “What would happen if I said the wrong thing?”

No doubt about it, this is high-risk, high-stakes business.

Lack of information

Dr. Owens and team point out that one of the major reasons all of this occurs is there are no clear “see this/do that” protocols. Bottom-line: the information doesn’t appear to be readily available.

Well, we’re going to do something about that…

The warning signs of suicide

According to the American Association of Suicidology, these are the warning signs of acute suicide risk…

  • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or expressing the desire
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means
  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide – when the behavior is out of the ordinary

But there’s more. Consider these additional warning signs…

  • Increased substance use
  • No reason for living or sense of life purpose
  • Anxiety, agitation, being unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time
  • Feeling trapped with no way out
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, society
  • Rage, uncontrolled anger, revenge seeking
  • Recklessness, engaging in risky activities, impulsivity
  • Dramatic mood changes

This mnemonic may come in handy…


Substance Abuse


Mood Changes

Learn, be ready 

If you have a family member, significant other, friend, or colleague who you believe may be at risk for suicide – now or in the future – you owe it to them (and yourself) to be prepared.

A great way to do that is to spend some time on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. In the face of crisis, they’re accessible by dialing 800-273-TALK (8255). Live chat is available on the site.

Please remember you have company when it comes to not knowing what to do when someone close to you may be suicidal. But what will make you stand out is your willingness to do something about it.

Learn, be ready.

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