This guide is written to help people respond to those at risk of suicide. Each person is different and any support must take into account the person’s unique needs. It is important for members of the public to seek professional help when dealing with suicide ideation.
Suicide is preventable. Studies have shown that parents and peers can be instrumental in helping those with suicide ideation. If you know someone who has thoughts of ending their life, here are some ways that you can help them:
1: Call for help if they are in immediate danger
When you find out that a person is in a dangerous situation or has already harmed themselves, do not try to handle the situation alone. You should call the emergency services like the police or ambulance immediately and stay with this person until help arrives.
2: Look out for warning signs
There are several behaviours to look out for when a person is comtemplating suicide.
- Talking about suicide like “I wish I was dead”, “I want to end the pain”, “They will miss me when I’m dead”, etc.
- Planning to attempt suicide by buying knives, ropes or accumulating pills in large amounts. They may also be researching ways to end their life.
- Isolating themselves from family and friends, preparing a will, giving away possessions and saying goodbye.
- Changes in mood: quieter than usual, marked mood swings, increased sense of hopelessness and emptiness, more agitated, increased anxiety and extreme sadness.
- Sleep disturbances where the person sleeps less or more than usual.
- Taking alcohol or drugs.
3: Ask and listen
The key to asking someone about their suicidal thoughts is to be direct. It may feel awkward at first but you do not have to feel bad about showing concern about their mental health. It is important to be sensitive to their struggles while discussing the issue directly without being judgmental (criticising or blaming them) or feel fearful of where the conversation will lead to. Studies have shown that asking about suicide does not lead to an increase in the risk of suicide2.
Do try to remain calm and in control as a way of reassuring the other person that the situation is not as bad as they think. Please do not feel compelled to provide any solution just yet or tell them how to feel (“Be grateful for what you have”, “You should be happy”). The best way to show empathy and support is to simply be by their side and listen. Most importantly, do not try to argue with them about their thoughts of suicide. Expressing thoughts of suicide may be someone’s way of telling others that they are overwhelmed by their situation or about the emotional struggle that they are going through. Let them know that you want to support them because you care about them and that they are not a burden at all.
4. Reach out for help
Suicidal ideation is a complex issue. Mental illnesses, economic issues, relationship problems and sickness are just some of the factors that can often lead people to consider ending their life as a way out. There are professional therapists, counsellors and social service organisations who are able to help. Do not feel like you have to provide all the solutions on your own. Encourage the person to seek help from the professionals. To make the first contact easier for the person, you can always offer to go with them.
You can involve other people in the person’s social circle to build up a trusted network of support for the person with suicidal ideation. This will enhance their social connectedness and reduce the sense of isolation that the person often feels. Knowing that people care about them and want to support them in their journey of restoration is a very powerful protective factor in preventing suicide.
5. Safety planning
Remove items, like knives, that a person with suicidal thoughts can use to harm themselves. Should they have medications to take, get their permission or work together with them to hold on to the medicine and give them the correct dosage at the right time. When someone is going through suicidal ideation, it can be a confusing time and they may not be able to think clearly. In these situations, having a list of people whom they can call will come in handy. You can work with the person to identify a list of trusted family members, friends and professional helplines, and make sure these people know what to do when they are contacted.
Do check in with them regularly to see how they have been coping.
6. Look after yourself
Being a supportive friend and caregiver can be challenging. While it is rewarding, it can also be stressful and sometimes, overwhelming too. It is important that you also take care of yourself physically and emotionally.
Here are three ways to avoid a burn-out:
- Build up your own support network. It is vital that you are supported when you are giving support too.
- Refresh yourself. Take breaks often to recharge. Pay attention to your own needs. Getting enough rest and eating well will help you to better care for others.
- Get others to help. There are other people and professionals who can be part of the restoration journey too.
This article has been prepared in collaboration with Samaritans of Singapore. For more information, please visit the following:
1. Samaritans: Supporting Someone with Suicidal Thoughts
2. National Institute of Mental Health (US): Warning Signs of Suicide
3. Suicide First Aid For the Philippines
1.Biswas, Tuhin & Scott, James & Munir, Kerim & Renzaho, Andre & Rawal, Lal & Baxter, Janeen & Mamun, Abdullah. (2020). Global variation in the prevalence of suicidal ideation, anxiety and their correlates among adolescents: A population-based study of 82 countries. EClinicalMedicine. 24. 100395. 10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100395.
2. King, Cheryl. Asking or not asking about suicidal thoughts: The possibility of "added value" research to improve our understanding of suicide. American Psychology Association. July/August 2016, Vol 47, No. 7. Print version: page 36.
3. Colucci, E., Kelly, C.M., Minas, H. et al. Mental Health First Aid guidelines for helping a suicidal person: a Delphi consensus study in the Philippines. Int J Ment Health Syst 4, 32 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1186/1752-4458-4-32
Illustrator: Xiao Yan
This article has been prepared in collaboration with Samaritans of Singapore.