A friend just told you that their loved one tried to commit suicide. How does one react to this information?
Be there for the person who just told you this information by being fully present with them. See, for every person who is struggling with mental illness, they have loved ones who care for and about them. Mental illness and suicide are stigmatized. Partly because people believe it is a choice or because they think it is selfish. When comments like that are made, to me, it just shows lack of understanding. But I am not here to debate that. I want you to know how to help the loved ones too.
Just as the person who has a mental illness struggles with guilt, shame and fear of being judged, so do the loved ones. They too may be fearful to tell or speak openly about their loved ones mental health. In addition to being fearful of being judged, stigma, shame, and guilt, they may feel like it isn’t their story to tell. So if someone is sharing this information with you, please know that they value your support and friendship. They need you to be there. They do not need you to fix it or say the right thing. Just be there. Listen to them. Talk to them.
Just be there
Listen to them
Talk to them
Just as every person with mental illness has their story and is needing understanding and empathy from their loved ones; loved ones are asking for the same from you. Please be empathetic. Know that their story is different than their mothers, brothers or other family members and friends. It impacts them differently, as their relationship is different with their loved one.
Here are some practical things to know about attempted suicide/suicide and the mental health system (this is not an exhausted list and is meant to help you understand some of the situation so that you can be supportive). If you would like more information or warning signs please click here.
-Not everyone is hospitalized. Hospitalization is not indicative of the severity of someone’s mental illness.
-A suicide attempt does not necessarily mean someone was depressed. For example, someone may suffer from a psychotic break and make an attempt. An overdose does not always mean someone was attempting to hurt themselves. No matter what the situation, provide empathy. Each situation is different and each deserves the same respect and understanding.
-Navigating the mental health system can be very difficult and tiresome.
How to support your friends:
-Ask questions if the person is comfortable. Do so to help understand and provide empathy, not out of curiosity. This actually may be a nice change for the loved one. This topic can make people uncomfortable, people may respond with silence, changing the subject or making one quick statement. If you do not understand something such as what their loved ones illness is or how it impacts them, ask. It is better to fully understand than to make assumptions.
-Do not assume your friend knows what they need. In a time of stress, it is not uncommon not to know what to ask for from someone. If they are sharing with you, most likely they just need you to listen.
-Know that they may be living in a state of worry, anxiety or hyper-vigilance due to their loved ones recent suicide attempt.
-Offer/do practical things for your friend. Offer to babysit, bring groceries, or bring dinner. Any of those things can be very helpful. If someone is hospitalized, often, visiting hours are in the evening, so things such as meals and childcare can be important.
-Remind your friend to engage in self-care. Offer to go to the movies, meet for coffee, or go on a walk with them. It will be helpful for loved ones to learn to manage their own stress as well.
-Check in with your friend periodically about their loved one. One reason that mental illness is so isolating is because people do not talk about it. It can be uncomfortable for both the person struggling and the family. But know it is uncomfortable for the person and the family to not talk about it too. They will appreciate knowing that you care enough to check in.
If you or someone you love struggles with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.
Jessica Fowler, LCSW
Please note that this information is provided for informational and educational purposes only.