Helping someone with suicidal thoughts

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day.  Rates of death by suicide are high in South Africa, especially amongst young people. Here are some tips on how to help someone who is having suicidal thoughts:

  1. Listen to them, without judgement. Take them seriously. Acknowledge the strength and bravery it must have taken them to share with you.
  2. Ask them what kind of support they’re needing from you. Then let them know what kind of support you’ll be able to provide. It’s okay if you’re limited in what you can do, just let them know where your limits are.
  3. Keep them safe. Thinking about suicide doesn’t always mean the person is at risk of acting on these thoughts. If they do have a desire to act on their suicidal thoughts, you will need to act immediately to ensure they are kept safe:
  • Remove any lethal means that they were going to use – e.g., firearms, access to pills.
  • If they have a mental healthcare provider – contact them. If not, contact a crisis helpline like SADAG for assistance. (SADAG suicide crisis line: 0800567567)
  • Make sure they’re not left alone. Take them to the emergency room at a local hospital, if you can’t stay with them.
  1. You can’t keep it a secret. If the person asks you to not tell anyone or do anything, explain that you can’t do nothing. However, emphasise this doesn’t mean you are going to betray their trust. Discuss with them who you are and aren’t allowed to talk to about it.
  2. Watch your words. Don’t tell the person they shouldn’t think about suicide because they have a great life, or have so much to be grateful for, need to think about their family or others. These kinds of comments increase their feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness. If they could just not think about suicide, they would. It’s not as simple as that.

Once the thoughts have subsided:

  1. Make sure to continue checking in with the person and showing them you’re still there for them. You can follow up to find out if they’ve sought professional mental healthcare and/or if they’ve been trying any of the coping strategies out, without placing too much pressure on them.
  2. Work together to develop a safety plan that outlines steps they can take when they feel the urge to act on their suicidal thoughts. This should include calling a crisis helpline (like SADAG), reaching out to someone they trust, and engaging in coping strategies.
  3. Look after your own mental health. Helping someone – especially a loved one – who is thinking about suicide can be really challenging and upsetting. So, it’s important that you also make sure to take care of yourself!

If you’re feeling helpless, you can also reach out for support and guidance from a mental healthcare professional, counsellor, or support group – SADAG offers these too.

More information, including tips for self-help and for helping others, can be found on our website: www.masiviwe.org.za and on our social media pages @MasiviweZA.

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