Realizing a friend is struggling with suicide can feel scary and overwhelming. It can feel impossible to pull someone from those depths. Recently, I found myself in a similar situation with a close friend.

Life seemed to be getting busier for both of us. What I didn’t realize was that my friend was actively withdrawing from those around him. He was still reeling from the death of his father and his romantic relationship ending all while starting a new job in a strenuous field. During this time, I extended my sympathies and tried to be empathetic, but he didn’t seem interested in anything deeper than surface level conversations. 

I felt a distance growing between us. I was concerned about him, but it wasn’t until I received a frantic message from a family member who explained how pervasive his withdrawal has been. That is when I started to feel scared, overwhelmed, and worried that I missed my opportunity to “save him.”

I reached out several times without luck. It wasn’t until I connected with him in person that we were able to talk about what has been going on. He was struggling with thoughts of suicide and most of what he expressed I already knew, but what I didn’t know is that the absence of connection also played into his slow decline. He expressed that when things got worse for him, people would be there, but the support slowly disappeared, and he felt alone. Soon he stopped reaching out altogether because “I didn’t need a pat on the back. I needed someone to be there”.

My friend is safe and okay now, but my conversation with him made me reflect. Often when we see someone struggling around us, we extend a hand to help or words to comfort, but do we continue to support? Do we check-in a few weeks or months later to see how they are still doing? Are we actively providing a connection?

Connection can be a significant protective factor for anyone who may be struggling with something in life, especially when we start to talk about suicide and trauma. Connection is something we can provide that will reduce risk in a variety of ways. Here are five things you can do now that will improve your ability to provide meaningful connection to those around you.

  1. If you are worried about someone, do not wait. Check-in with them. When we recognize someone struggling or not being themselves, be actively curious about their situation. Show that you care about them and want to be there for them when. Make sure they know you’ll continue to be there no matter what. Continue to build trust and encourage them to seek help from you or others.
  2. Listen to each other without judgement and be empathetic. Often when we see people in pain, our first reaction is to help or “fix” whatever is going on. This is something we need to stop doing. If someone needs our help, we should refrain from sharing stories, helpful tips, or “this is what helped me…” anecdotes. Those struggling need a space to share what is inside them, and they need someone willing to listen without judgement. It is also important that you are empathetic rather than sympathetic. Share that difficult space with them and make sure they know you’re there to help.
  3. Increase positive supports. You cannot be their sole support. Find ways to increase other supports, from family or natural supports, professional services, coping skills, and numbers to reach in case of crisis. We want individuals to have multiple avenues for support and actively utilize them.
  4. Know the resources available at home, at work, and in the community. Being a prepared caregiver makes supporting another person easier. What resources exist if you were to need them? Where do they exist if you were at work versus if you were at home? Being prepared also shows you are ready to handle this conversation which can reduce anxiety for the individual struggling. Find some local resources here.
  5. Recognize your own limits. We can’t help others until we help ourselves. Recognizing your limits keeps you and the individual safe because we don’t want to force an intervention or support. If you feel you cannot support an individual, that is okay; but you have a responsibility to get someone involved who can help.

Supporting loved ones, family, or friends is not always easy. These five steps are a starting point for anyone who would like to provide connection to others, but we must continue to look for ways to improve connection in our communities.

If you’d like to get involved or learn more, please reach out to Hunter Robbins, Suicide Prevention Coordinator.

Help is available. Speak with someone today. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255.

Author: Hunter Robbins, Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS)