You’re a teen, and you’re having a late-night DMC with your friend. In the midst of the conversation, he or she admits they’ve thought about dying. It may have come out as a casual confession or a tearful admission. Whatever it is and however it came out, it’s clear to you they’re thinking about suicide.
When a friend admits they want to die, it may be a nerve-wracking situation for you to be in. What do you do? What do you say?
The fact that your friend felt comfortable enough to confide in you says a lot about the level of trust they have in you. That’s why it’s so important to take this responsibility seriously. Telling a friend about one’s thoughts of death is a cry for help. At this point, it’s up to you to try and get your friend the appropriate help they need.
Below, we’ve outlined a few suggestions on what to do immediately after your friend has told you they want to die.
What to do when a friend is feeling suicidal:
1. Acknowledge their openness
Your friend has just shared with you an extremely private thing. It takes a great deal of courage to be so vulnerable with another human being. Acknowledge this fact. Thank them for opening up to you.
2. Listen closely, and validate their feelings
Listen intently when they’re sharing. Don’t start talking too soon. Allow them to cry if they want to, and don’t interrupt while they’re still talking. Acknowledge their pain. During the conversation, you can validate their feelings by both your body language (facial expressions, gestures) and speech. You can say: This must be a hugely difficult thing that you’re going through right now. You must be in a lot of pain.
4. Tell them you are here for them.
Say: I’m going to try and help you through this struggle. You are not alone. We are going to get you help.
3. Give them the Suicide Prevention Hotline number.
In the U.S., the number is 1-800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) Preferably, save it on your friend’s phone for them so that they’ll have it handy. Also, you can give them the Crisis Text Line You text the word “HOME” to the number 741741 and a trained crisis support counselor will give you free assistance 24/7.
5. Offer to do research for them.
If you know of a great therapist or are seeing a therapist yourself, refer them to this therapist. If you don’t, offer to help them find one. You can also broach the topic of teen rehab centers. There are 24/7 residential treatment centers (RTC) specifically for adolescents who struggle with mental health issues like suicidal ideation. There are also ones that are geared towards teens who have other comorbid issues, like eating disorders or substance abuse. (The latter are typically called drug rehab centers). If your friend is also struggling with depression, anxiety, ADHD, anorexia/bulimia, bullying, family problems, or other behavioral problems, a dual-diagnosis RTC, or even an intensive outpatient center (IOP) or partial hospitalization program (PHP) may be very helpful.
6. Offer hope to the situation.
Adolescents often turn to thoughts of dying or suicide when they feel worthless. Suicidal teens often feel like no one cares about them, like they’re a burden, or they have nothing to live for. Teens also feel suicidal after a major distressing event, like a huge breakup or the passing of a loved one. They may feel like they can’t handle the pain. Offer hope and reassurance that things will eventually get better. This may sound like a cliché, but it’s true. Time heals wounds. Although your friend may feel like it’s the end of the world for them, explain to them that they may feel differently later on. Maybe not now and maybe not tomorrow – but things will get better.
7. Tell an adult or trained professional about your friend right away.
This is probably the most important thing you can do to help. You can tell any authority figure, such as your school counselor, your teacher, your friend’s mom or dad, or your parent. This action may actually save your friend’s life. Even if you’re not sure how serious your friend is, or whether they’re just saying this to you to get attention, it doesn’t matter. It’s not your call to make, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. The adult will be able to get your friend the appropriate mental health help they need else.
8. Ask if they have a plan.
Ask whether your friend has a plan to kill themselves, or if they have ever tried to hurt themselves in the past. While it may sound awkward to ask this, it’s very important. You need to understand if your friend is in immediate danger.
NOTE: Call 911 immediately if your friend has told you they have a plan for killing themselves, or you feel that your friend is in immediate danger to themselves, or if you are in doubt. Figure out a way to ensure your friend is not left alone, and dial for emergency help. If this is a life-and-death situation, your friend may need inpatient hospitalization at a mental health hospital.
What not to do when a friend is feeling suicidal:
Don’t promise secrecy.
If your friend asks you to promise not to tell anyone, do not make this promise. Yes, you might be going behind their back, and you might be worried your friend will be super angry at you when they find out, but how would you feel if you didn’t share the news with someone and your friend managed to commit suicide? It’s for their own good. You may be saving your friend’s life. The benefits certainly outweigh the risks here.
Don’t play therapist.
If you’re an adolescent, you do not have the appropriate educational background or qualifications to help your friend properly. Your friend needs a licensed mental health professional to properly help them through this struggle. Trying to play the role of therapist can harm both of you severely.
Don’t ask for too many details on why they’re feeling like this.
What’s important right now is that they’re in pain. That they feel like they want to die. Chances are, your friend will share what he or she feels comfortable sharing. If your friend doesn’t seem to want to expand on details or elaborate on the issues causing them to feel suicidal (like the breakup, their depression, their stressful school situation, or their bullying experience, etc.), don’t pry. That may just make your friend more upset, angry or depressed. If their confession of suicide feels like it came out of nowhere and your friend isn’t offering any background on context, you can gently ask, “What triggered this?”, which may sound less judgmental to your friend than “Why are you feeling like this?”
Don’t say: I understand what you’re going through.
While it sounds very sympathetic, the fact of the matter is that you really don’t. Even if you yourself are struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, you are not in their shoes. You do not have the same life package as them. You don’t have the same family, you don’t have the same genetic makeup, you don’t have the same life experience. So even if you can imagine what they’re going through, you really don’t know.
Don’t ignore the situation.
Taking this information and not doing anything with it is probably the worst thing you can do. Your friend trusted in you with their life, and now it’s your responsibility to pass on this information to the appropriate mental health professionals.
Adolescent Suicide on the Rise
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents. Even worse, the adolescent suicide rate is increasing dramatically. From 2007 to 2016, the suicide rate increased by 56%. For girls ages 10 to 14, the rate has almost tripled.
Recently, a study has shown that the hit Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why may be associated with the increase in suicide rates among adolescents. Researchers analyzed suicide data from the CDC from the time after the movie was released. Comparing this data to trends in data from earlier years, they found a 29% increase in the suicide rate among adolescents between the ages of 10-17 a month after the show aired. When compared to the same month in previous years, this increase was statistically significant.
The rise in adolescent suicides just serves as a tragic reminder that so many teens are crying out for help. Also, many teens are not just thinking about suicide—they’re attempting it. And they are, tragically, succeeding. That’s why it’s so important to take action whenever you hear someone – whether it’s a teen friend, a family member, a classmate – express a desire to die. You may just have the opportunity to save their life.