September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a month to remember the lives lost to suicide and the millions of people who have struggled with suicidal ideation. This month, we acknowledge the individuals, families, and communities impacted, raise awareness about suicide prevention, and share messages of hope. Unfortunately, suicide is still one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the CDC. The organization reported that the number of deaths via suicide increased by 2.6% from 2021 to 2022, with a total of 3,825 Black women dying. The most common mental health condition behind a person’s decision to die by suicide is severe depression, as mental illness can make individuals feel high levels of emotional pain and loss of hope, making them unable to see any other way to find relief than ending their own life.
However, we can take preventative measures to help ourselves and loved ones struggling with suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation, often called suicidal thoughts or ideas, is a broad term that describes a range of contemplations, wishes, and preoccupations with death and suicide.
A licensed professional counselor, Jenet Dove works closely with individuals who have endured various forms of developmental trauma. Occasionally, her clients may confront the complexities of depression and exhibit subtle yet worrisome signs of suicidal ideation. “Suicidal ideation represents the initial stage of a person’s journey toward self-harm or suicide. Those in this state often wrestle with distressing thoughts that may manifest as seemingly innocuous statements like, ‘Everyone would be better off without me” or “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up.’ While these comments may appear passive, they serve as stark indicators that someone is grappling with the early stages of suicidal ideation,” she says to ESSENCE.
She continues, “If you harbor concerns for the well-being of a loved one and suspect they may be contemplating suicide, there are several compassionate and impactful steps you can take to offer support. First and foremost, establish an atmosphere of non-judgmental listening. Create a safe, open space where individuals can freely express their emotions and thoughts without fearing criticism or judgment. Validate their feelings, letting them know that you genuinely care and are available to lend an empathetic ear. Avoid dismissing their concerns with clichés like ‘push through it or ‘this too shall pass.’”
Dove also suggests summoning the courage to be straightforward with your loved one by posing the question that may seem daunting: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
“This inquiry can be unsettling to ask, as we might fear that it could inadvertently plant the idea of self-harm, worsen the situation, or create discomfort. Yet, more often than not, individuals experiencing suicidal ideation find relief knowing that someone is willing to listen and cares enough to create a safe space for them. It’s essential to understand that the majority of individuals experiencing suicidal ideation do not wish to end their lives; instead, they are seeking a way to relieve their emotional pain and suffering. The support you offer can serve as a pathway to that relief,” she says.
Lastly, Dove believes it’s important to gently encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist. Take it a step further by extending a helping hand, offering assistance in finding appropriate resources, or arranging appointments if they are open to it.
Remember, your genuine concern and proactive steps can serve as vital support for someone experiencing suicidal ideation, potentially saving their life and offering them hope during their darkest hours.
Lastly, remember to take care of yourself. Assisting a friend grappling with suicidal ideation can be emotionally taxing and frightening. Ensure you have a support system to help you process any complex emotions that may arise during this process. Remember, you cannot effectively support others if your emotional well-being is neglected.
See licensed therapist, Natasha Reynolds from Bloom Psychology tips:
Listen to their experiences with depression or suicidal ideation, and prioritize meeting them with empathy and non-judgment. It is okay to express your concern kindly and get curious about what would be most supportive to them by collaborating on how you can best support them with their well-being. (i.e., “Thank you for sharing how you have been feeling lately. This must be so difficult to experience. I want you to know that you are not alone and are here to support you. Is there anything that I can do to make you feel most supported at this time?”)
If a loved one opens up about experiencing suicidal ideation, don’t shame them for their thoughts. Thank them for having the courage to share what they have been experiencing. Remind them that they are not a burden for sharing this with you. Remind them that they are loved and worthy of seeking support and prioritizing their well-being. Encourage them that support is available and that they don’t need to do this alone. This can be where redirection to support can be guided, whether it be to therapy resources, collaborating with the person on how you can support them in their daily routine, and checking in with them for emotional support.
Prioritize reaching out and checking in regularly on how they are feeling and how they have been doing (I.e., “Hey, I have been thinking about you. How have you been feeling lately? I wanted to remind you that I am here for you.”). Regularly checking in is also encouraging/partnering with someone to prioritize self-care and activities that can improve their well-being. (i.e., “Hey, I know this has been a tough time. Sending you a reminder that I am thinking of you. Would you like to go on a walk together today?”)
Supporting someone else can also bring up your own emotions and experiences. Remember to check in with yourself and your emotional well-being as you help others. Ensure that you also prioritize your well-being by acknowledging what is coming up for you and make sure you are “filling your cup” as well, whether it be through therapy, self-care, etc.
If someone is experiencing severe depression and suicidal ideation, it is essential to get them professional support. If you believe they are in immediate danger, contact support from emergency services.
Tips from Brittany Hardy, licensed marriage, family therapist and founder of The Hardy Clinic:
Ask About Their Plan: Gently inquire if they have a specific plan to harm themselves and how long they have grappled with these thoughts. This information can help you assess the level of urgency and potential risk.
Inquire About Their History: Ask if they have ever harmed themselves. Understanding their history can provide valuable context for their current situation.
Explore Their Support System: Find out if they have a support system and who they turn to in need. Identifying reliable sources of support can be critical in offering assistance.
Utilize Insurance and EAP Services: Advise them to contact their insurance company to locate an in-network provider for counseling and psychiatry services. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that cover initial therapy sessions with in-network providers. Please encourage them to inquire about this benefit through their HR department.
Explore Community Mental Health Agencies: Mention that community mental health agencies often accept clients without insurance or offer sliding scale rates.
It’s important to remember that your compassion and willingness to be there for someone who is experiencing a crisis can be a lifeline. Suicidal ideation is a serious matter, and seeking professional help is crucial. Always prioritize the person’s safety and well-being, and don’t hesitate to involve emergency services if the situation becomes critical.
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.