Here’s How You Can Help Someone Struggling With Suicidal IdeationJanuary 6, 2021
If anyone has experience helping someone in need, it's Mike Richey, who more than a decade ago saved the life of a teenaged Mark Henick as Henick, then a stranger, attempted to take his own life by jumping from a bridge.
Now, Richey is sharing the life-saving instincts he channeled that day in 2003 as a means of helping others realize that they, too, have the ability to be a lifeline for those who are struggling.
"If you see an opportunity to help someone and you can do so safely, don't wait for someone else," Richey, now close friends with Henick, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "Just jump in and do it. There were other people that I'm sure passed him that night, and Mark said it as well, so they might've seen him and made that choice where, 'I'm not getting involved with that,' or, 'Someone else can deal with that.' Just be the someone else."
The idea of saving the life of someone in a mental health crisis can be overwhelming — and scary. But recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed just how pervasive thoughts of suicide are: When those between the ages of 18 and 24 were asked if they had seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, 25.5 percent said yes.
PEOPLE spoke to several experts for ways to help a loved one or friend who may need mental health help and are struggling.
"[You can help] just by being there and letting them know that they're not alone, that you're going to be there for them and help in any way you can," says John Draper, executive director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). "It's typically enough to reduce that pain to a point where they can be engaged."
Pay attention to signs that someone may be struggling. "What's so important for all of us is we don't want to wait until someone is in that desperate moment to connect," says Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "We all need to learn the risk factors and warning signs and how to have that conversation."
She suggests asking the person questions about their lives — which will also create a caring connection.
"You can start with, 'Hey, I noticed you've been grumpy lately' or, 'Hey, you just lost your job. How are you doing?'" she says.
It's OK to ask about thoughts of suicide
If a friend or loved one is depressed and says they are feeling hopeless or helpless, or that "life is not worth living or they want to die," ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide, says Draper. "Let them know you want to help," he adds.
Asking does not put the thought of suicide in a person’s head. "The research is very clear on this, that asking this question, not only does not put the idea in a person's head who is not thinking about it, but for the person who is suicidal, it feels like a relief," says Draper. "Like they feel that it's safe for them to talk about this very scary thing that they've been thinking about."
Tell the person you care about them, and offer a listening ear so that they know they do not have to go through it alone, he says.
"And listen without judgment and [let them know] that you are going to help them," he adds.
For more on how to help someone struggling with a mental health crisis, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
If someone tells you they are having thoughts of suicide, show your concern with supportive statements. "You would say, 'It sounds like it's such a painful time for you, tell me more, or 'You sound so lonely, tell me more,' or 'It sounds so scary, tell me more,'" says Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology. "You would ask them to tell you more because the most important thing to do is to listen and to be there for them."
Steps to help
If someone says they want to kill themselves, keep them safe. Offer to remove pills, guns and other methods of self-harm, experts advise.
Reach out to others for help, and connect them with support such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and a person they trust, such as their therapist, clergyman or another loved one.
"Say 'Hey, this is too big for both of us, we need help, we can't keep this a secret and I'd like to call someone who can help us," says Draper.
You can also call or text a crisis hotline to help yourself help the person in need. "They have people who are trained to deescalate the situation and to help the person who's in such terrible pain," says Harkavy-Friedman. "You can call them if you're worried about somebody and they'll give you guidance."
The majority of the time, the crisis subsides if the suicide lifeline is called, says Draper.
"Recent research has shown that about 90 percent of the callers who have been suicidal say that the conversation helped reduce their suicidality," he says. "About 70 percent of them said that it actually kept them from killing themselves. The conversation itself can be lifesaving."
Once the crisis subsides, maintain your connection with the person by checking in with phone calls, texts or visits to see how they are doing.
"You also want to say, 'Hey, Bob or Susie, let me check back with you over the coming week to make sure that you're doing okay,'" says Draper. "Just to let them know that their crisis doesn't end with a single thought or a single question or a single conversation, that this is something that you're letting them know that you're still going to be there for them."
Know, too, that you may be able to help someone get through a crisis more than you can imagine, he adds.
"There's a few things that I could say to a friend of mine that therapists could never say," says Draper. "I could say things like, 'You're never going to have to go through this alone' or, 'I will always be here for you' or, 'I love you.' And those are lifesaving phrases that they can say that can save a life in that moment."
When to call 911
If a person can't be engaged and you believe they could die if you don't do anything, call 911, experts advise.
"If someone is standing there and they're about to take their life or they're really in distress, or they're agitated or their thinking is delusional, [call 911]" says Harkavy-Friedman. "Any sense that there's a possibility of an impulsive act or an out of control act."
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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