How to Help Others who are Struggling

(Note: this is Part 2 of a two-part blog. Part 1 is How to cope with suicidal thoughts).

September is Suicide Prevention Month. If someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, here are things that you can do to help promote their safety and survival.

Look for Signs

Here are some signs that someone may be feeling suicidal:

  • Talking about suicide, either directly or vaguely (e.g., not wanting to live, can’t do it anymore, wishing they were never born).
  • Expressing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or depression. From the outside, it may seem like they have a lot to live for, but inside, they may feel that there’s no hope for the future.
  • Talking about feeling like a burden to others; like everyone would be better off without them.
  • Seeking the “means” to kill themselves (pills, gun, etc.).
  • Thinking about death and dying, which may be expressed through music, art, stories, poetry, etc.
  • Having a loved one die by suicide.
  • Experiencing other forms of loss, including death, separation/divorce, loss of a job, etc.
  • Engaging in overly risky behaviors, including increased use of alcohol or drugs, promiscuous sex, driving fast or under the influence, etc.
  • Giving up special, prized possessions to others.
  • Putting final arrangements in order, such as making a will, organizing things for family, etc.
  • Disconnecting from others.

Above all, if your gut is telling you that someone you love may be thinking about suicide, then ask them.

Ask your loved one if they are thinking about suicide

This can be a difficult question to ask someone you love. If they are thinking about suicide, asking them can help them feel relieved and understood. Asking them does not give them the idea; they have likely thought about it already. If they are not having thoughts of suicide, then asking them shows that you care.

If they say “yes”, then here are a few tips to help support them:

Provide resources and encourage them to seek help

If your loved one requires immediate help:

Call 911 or go to your local hospital’s ER.

Crisis Help Lines – Phone and Text:

Southern Alberta

  • Distress Line of Southwestern Alberta: (403) 327-7905

Alberta:

  • Mental Health Help Line: 1-877-303-2642

Canada:

  • Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, text: 45645
  •  Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 686868

Short and Long Term Help

There are various mental health professionals that provide short and long term support for people coping with suicidal thoughts and feelings. When looking for appropriate professionals, look for those that have education, experience, or training in suicidal ideation. If your loved one sees a therapist and does not like it, encourage them to try out others until they find the right fit.

Help your loved one stay safe

Ask the person you’re concerned about – when they think about suicide, how would they do it? Help them remove or avoid these items as soon as possible. Seeing or touching these things may increase their risk. Lock up the items, if possible, or put them away. For things that cannot be removed (e.g., a building) talk with about how they can avoid them and how you can help.

Encourage them to stay away from alcohol/drugs and only using prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines as directed.

Advocate that other close people are informed of what’s going on. This helps create a support-team approach, provides you with assistance, reduces your stress level, and increases your loved one’s support system. Your loved one may ask you not to tell anyone else that he/she is suicidal. Try to avoid keeping secrets, because if the risk is high enough, you may need to make decisions that they don’t like to keep them safe. This may include calling the Police. Instead of keeping secrets, let them know that you will do whatever you can to keep them safe.

Invite conversations about feelings

Ask open-ended questions to help encourage them to talk about their feelings. Open-ended questions are ones that cannot be answered with one word – “yes”, “no”, etc. They often start with “What”, “When”, “Who”, “Where”, “How”, “Tell me more”, etc. Try to avoid asking “Why” and “Why not” questions as these can trigger feelings of guilt and judgement. If you really want to know why, asking “How come?” is a gentler alternative.

Listen non-judgmentally

Approach your loved one with a stance of curiosity and respect. Try to understand what they are experiencing as a human being. Validate their emotions by saying things like “it sounds like you’re feeling sad. Does that sound right?”

Things to Avoid Saying

Keep in mind that your loved one is feeling overwhelmed with emotional pain. Saying things like “you shouldn’t feel this way”, “you’ll get over it”, or “look at all the things you have going for you” can be interpreted as judgmental and that you’re just not getting it. Instead, try asking questions to understand, from their words, what they’re going through and what they need, such as “what’s been upsetting you lately?”, “what do you feel like you need?”, and “how can I help?”.

Let them know you care

Being real with them about how important they are to you and how much you love them helps them feel like you’re on their side. Feeling loved and connected with social supports is one of the biggest protective factors for suicide.

Offer hope

When someone is suicidal, it is very hard to see that things can get better. Through counselling, social supports, healthy ways of expressing emotions, self-care, and other protective factors, people can and do feel better and hopeful about the future. Reassure your loved one about this and that you will be there to support them along the way.

Your own Self-care

Caring for someone who is suicidal is emotionally draining. It is important for you to take care of your own physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. Taking care of yourself and doing things that bring you feelings of joy, relaxation, and purpose are important for your own mental health.

Reaching out for Help

Supporting someone who is thinking about suicide can be stressful. Mental health professionals provide a great deal of support and guidance with many areas, including stress-management, caregiver burden, and compassion fatigue. There are various mental health professionals within Southern Alberta, and many are providing options for access, including face-to-face and/or telehealth opportunities during the pandemic. At Associates Counselling Services, we are providing both in-person and telehealth options. If you would like to get set up or ask questions, please call (403) 381-6000. https://talkinghelps.ca/

Special Tribute to the artist of the drawing shown in this blog

Valerie Furgason, a professional colleague of mine, has provided her consent for me to share her journey. Ten years ago, her son, Michael, died of suicide at the age of 17.  Valerie has found meaning in her loss through artwork. She has made it her life purpose to let people who are thinking about suicide know that they are important and there are many people who care deeply about them.

The title of the drawing shown in this blog is “Sit with me”. It represents the love that many people feel for individuals who are thinking about suicide. It also speaks to the essential element of supporting people who are suicidal. By sitting with them, hearing their concerns and pains, and showing our love and concern, we can keep them alive. The use of the semicolon throughout the tree represents the reminder to the suicidal person to pause and know that they are loved.  Through her drawings, Valerie dreams that others can connect with their emotions and feel a sense of hope for the future.

                            Brad Moser, Registered Psychologist

Brad Moser has almost 13 years of experience providing therapy for children and teens, adults, couples, and families. His areas of practice include anger, anxiety, bereavement, childhood and family of origin concerns, depression, identity concerns, marital/relationship distress, men’s and dad’s issues, parenting, self-esteem, separation/divorce, stress, and suicidal ideation. Brad is now accepting new clients and is providing a sliding scale for those who cannot afford the normal rate.

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