By Aiden Nutter-Rowher, CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank
GuideLink Program Manager
It can feel like it came out of nowhere; one minute you’re talking about the latest episode of your favorite show, and the next moment your loved one is telling you they’re thinking of suicide. Or maybe you knew something was bothering them for a while now, and you finally asked what was wrong. No matter how the topic gets brought up, when someone close to you talks about suicide, it can be a terrifying experience. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t help!
There’s a harmful myth that talking about suicide will cause a person to act on thoughts of suicide, but nothing can be further from the truth. By talking to your loved one about their thoughts, you’re signaling to them that you care and you’re ready to help.
Below are some steps to help you when someone you care about is talking about suicide:
Don’t panic, but let yourself feel
Someone you care about discussing suicide is distressing. Even for those of us “in the field” of suicide prevention/intervention, it is a completely different discussion when it’s someone in our personal lives. It’s natural to freeze up, panic, want to sprint from the room, deflect with humor, avoid the conversation, or whatever else you could think of to protect yourself from the uncomfortable feelings that emerge.
First, don’t panic. The fact that your loved one is even talking to you about suicide means they trust you and think you’re someone who could help. If they’re reaching out at all, that’s a small sign that they want to live. It may be a scary conversation, but you’re now in a great position to really help them and even strengthen your relationship.
But, also don’t think you have to respond perfectly; it’s okay to let them know that you’re scared and sad. The biggest thing is to not make it about you. Instead, let them know that you’re upset they’re thinking of suicide, but you’re not upset at all that they told you. Tell them that you are upset because you love and care about them, and you want to help. They’ve been vulnerable with you by telling you they’re thinking of suicide, so you can be vulnerable with them, too. Let them know you love them and are ready to hear what they have to say.
Listen to them
Imagine for a second that you’re at the doctor’s office, and you just told your doctor that you’ve been feeling really sick. Rather than asking more about it or talking about your symptoms, they jump immediately to referring you to a specialist before pushing you out the door. How would that make you feel? Sure, you now have an appointment with that specialist, but you’re still going to have to spend agonizing weeks feeling sick and wondering what is wrong with you. Your doctor taking that extra 10-15 minutes to really talk with you could have made things so much better!
Like in the above scenario, the more effective thing you can do in this situation is to take the time to listen to your loved one. Give your loved one a chance to talk and express themselves; what they’re feeling, the events leading up to thoughts of suicide, and where they are now with those thoughts. Getting the chance to unload can lift an enormous amount of stress off the person’s shoulders, and they may start to talk about good things connecting them to life on their own. Giving them the space to do so is a way to tell them you love and care about them.
You don’t want to bombard your loved one with questions or cut them off when they’re trying to talk, but asking for clarification can signal to them that you’re paying attention. Ask them to explain more about what they’re feeling, and what led to thoughts of suicide. And don’t be afraid to ask about their current thoughts. The following can help you assess what kind of care they might need:
- Are they currently thinking of suicide?
- If they are thinking of suicide now, have they thought about when they might act on those thoughts?
- What are some of the ways they might act on those thoughts of suicide?
- Have they already done something to act on thoughts of suicide?
- Are they currently thinking of suicide?
If your loved one has already done something to put their lives at risk, please call 911 or take them to the nearest hospital for care.
Connect with care
Now that your loved one has had the chance to express themselves and tell their story, they might be ready to move on to getting help. Depending on what they need, there are all kinds of support out there to help them.
If your loved one needs to talk to a counselor immediately, you could reach out to your local mobile crisis team. Here in Johnson and Iowa counties, CommUnity’s Mobile Crisis Outreach team is available 24/7, 365 days a year, and will dispatch to wherever you are to meet with you. These counselors are specially trained to help people with thoughts of suicide and can help figure out a plan moving forward to keep your loved one safe. Mobile crisis services are completely free.
- To contact Mobile Crisis Outreach, call 1-855-895-8398 and ask for Mobile Crisis.
Another option is to seek out community support. In Iowa City, GuideLink Center is a 24-hour mental health access center that provides community-based support for mental health and substance use crises. When you come to the center, you’ll immediately meet with a triage counselor that will help you and your loved one figure out things that could help. At GuideLink, there are crisis stabilization beds, which are places your loved one can stay for 1-5 days and receive care/supervision from staff while they set up longer-term resources. There are also other services available, including substance abuse help and connection with local resources.
- For questions, please call GuideLink at 319-688-8000 or go to the center located at 300 Southgate Ave
Finally, they can also call, text, or chat with CommUnity’s trained volunteers and staff on the local crisis lines. Crisis lines are available 24/7, 365 days a year, and can be used anonymously if your loved one is uncertain about talking to someone other than you.
- You can call or text 1-855-325-4296, or go to http://iowacrisischat.org/ to reach the crisis lines.
Take care of yourself
Once your loved one is taken care of, it’s time to take care of yourself! You’re probably feeling all sorts of things right now, including absolutely exhausted. This is normal; you just did a huge amount of emotional work in helping your loved one stay safe. You may also still be afraid for them, or dealing with your own depression or anxiety.
All the above resources are available to you as well, even if you’re not having thoughts of suicide. Additionally, there are lots of peer-support groups aimed at helping families and loved ones of people with mental health concerns. Mobile crisis, GuideLink, and the crisis lines can all help you connect with resources of your own, so you can take care of yourself.
- NAMI Johnson County offers a family support group weekly; you can find more info at https://namijc.org/support-groups-2/ .
You may also be interested in learning more about suicide prevention and intervention. Many organizations offer training about suicide for free to the local community and can help you build skills to help others. CommUnity offers both QPR and ASIST to residents of the area, which are the same trainings that our volunteers and crisis counselors go through. For more information, go to: https://builtbycommunity.org/training/
Suicide is a heavy topic, and it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and frightened when it strikes close to home. But giving your loved one the chance to talk about their experience, listening and asking questions with care and compassion, and reaching out for help are all ways to help them get through this tough time. CommUnity is dedicated to helping those in our community struggling with thoughts of suicide, and our staff and volunteers are always ready and eager to help you and your loved ones. If ever you need help, please reach out to us!