I have a friend who has been struggling with depression for a long time and I think she’s considering suicide. I’m really worried about her, but I don’t know what to say. What’s the best way to help her?
Courtney, thank you for reaching out and asking this incredibly important and brave question. You are good person with a good heart, and I’m glad your friend has you.
Here’s what I’m going to do. Usually, the form of these Ask RELEVANT articles take us from theoretical to practical. Today though, I’m skipping most of the theoretical and just giving you three steps to do right now:
1. Treat Every Mention as Real.
When we first hear someone say they’re thinking of taking their own life, it can be really difficult to accept. There are a number of reasons why:
Sometimes, they say it in such a casual way that it doesn’t register as an actual threat to their life, but more like a little throw away phrase. We all say these kinds of things, don’t we? “I could kill the guy who’s setting off fireworks in August!”
See what I’m saying? Even if I’m justified because the 4th of July was well over a month ago and my kids are now crying at 3 a.m. because of that punk, I’m not going to really kill anyone. I’m just talking.
We sometimes hear, as clear as day, someone say something like, “This world would just be better off without me,” and we chalk up the statement to our friend being sad and maybe a little dramatic—they’re just talking, right? Who knows. That’s why you treat it as real, instead of guessing incorrectly.
However, there’s another reason we don’t believe the mention of suicide is real. It’s because, well, we don’t believe it’s actually real. We think there’s no possible way they would actually do that. Maybe we think the idea of suicide is unthinkable and unimaginable. Or maybe you’ve heard a friend say a hundred times that they’re going to take their life. But this time, you believe it’s time to wisen up and not be duped a one-hundred-and-first time.
Nope. It’s real, just like it was time 1 through 100.
Whatever our reasons for not fully comprehending the weight of a suicidal threat, we need to do all we can to remove the mental barriers that make us treat a cry for help as something other than a real and credible danger.
So Courtney, just to be really clear, your friend’s cry for help is real, and it’s time to act. Which leads us to the next step …
2. Ring the Bell.
Courtney, you need to find someone to tell about your friend’s admission to you. Now, I know, because you’re a good friend, that it may seem like you’re betraying some sort of trust because your friend may ask you to keep this between the two of you. But seriously, you can’t. Here’s why:
First, neither you nor I have all the skills necessary to really help. In fact, no one person does. Even an amazing counselor, when confronted with a client who’s threatening self-harm, talks to another counselor for wisdom.
You see, really caring for someone who’s suicidal is more than just being a listening ear. It’s a holistic conversation about medical issues, psychological issues, life issues, etc. etc. It’s bigger than you, or me, or your friend. But it’s usually not beyond the scope of a good support team.
So what I would do is be as empathetic and loving to your friend as possible, and then engage in a conversation about who else could be told about this. Maybe your friend will have an adverse reaction and try to stop you. If that’s the case, you have to just go to a parent, counselor, pastor or really anyone you trust and let them know everything you know. Your friend’s desire for your actions can’t outweigh your desire for their well-being.
However, more often than not, the person will appreciate that you’re taking the threat seriously, caring for them genuinely and letting other people join the team. If this ends up being the case, talk together about who could be told and then figure out the best way to tell them.
Courtney, isolation is the enemy here. Your friend knew that, and she was smart enough to bring you in to help and not try to fight this thing alone. And now you need to do the same. You can’t be alone in knowing this information—it’s time to ring the bell.
One more thing: A lot of people get hung up on the, “I have to tell someone” part and they can’t figure out a person who is trustworthy and safe. If that’s the case, or even if you just can’t come up with a name in the intensity of the moment, please call this number, they’ll walk you through what’s next:
3. Be Supportive.
All right Courtney, this is the last thing. Thoughts of self-harm stem from a very real and difficult space. And anyone who has ever been suicidal and found their way out of the dark woods knows that it wasn’t because they purely willed themselves to get better. It’s because a lot of people helped.
Courtney, think of yourself as one of the three legs of a stool: One leg represents professional/medical help, one leg represents a belief system (often, a belief in God), and one leg is community support (you).
For your friend to get better and find balance, all three legs must be intact. This is where your role becomes vital. Because while doctors and counselors are diagnosing and testing, you’re going to be there telling your friend you love and value them. And while your friend tries to figure out that their life is worth something, you’re going to be the constant voice telling them they matter to you. Courtney, you’re not the only leg of the stool, but you’re a vital part of the team. What you contribute can’t be undervalued.
In closing, I’ll share this: I still mourn the loss of one of my best friends to suicide, and would give anything to tell him one more time that he matters and what he does with his life matters. And while I still feel unspeakable sadness about his death, I know it’s not in anyone’s power to save anyone else. All we can do is take the threat seriously, gather a support system and love them through the pain.
I, and many others, will be praying for you, Courtney. You’re a good friend.
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Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.