5 Action Steps to Help Prevent Suicide

Sep 2022

woman consoling a man who looks upset

How friends, family, and care providers should communicate with someone who may be suicidal

As Suicide Prevention Month comes to a close, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on what we all can do to protect our loved ones and people in our care from suicide. These five steps can make all the difference when it comes to speaking to someone who may be at risk of suicide.

Step 1: Ask – and listen to the answer

One of the most persistent myths about suicide is that bringing up the topic can actually push someone toward suicide. There is no evidence this is true. It’s important to name the issue and ask directly: “are you thinking about suicide?” Frame the question in a non-judgmental way to start an effective and potentially life-saving dialogue. (Remember, though, that you should never promise to keep their thoughts of suicide a secret – that’s a secret that you simply cannot keep if they are in danger.)

Then, listen to the answer. Take what they say seriously, focusing on the reasons they feel this way. Remember, the suicidal mind is deeply ambivalent; people who have thoughts of suicide also have strong reasons to go on living. The best way to respond is to emphasize and reinforce their reasons to go on living, not to impose someone else’s reasons on them.

Step 2: Be there for them

A significant reason people become suicidal is feelings of isolation. The way to combat isolation is with connectedness; ideally, that means physical presence, but speaking with someone on the phone or staying in contact with them in other ways is helpful too. The key is the follow-through: don’t commit to actions you can’t accomplish. Instead, help to connect the suicidal person with the resources they need.

Feeling connected to others is critical not just to lower feelings of suicidality in general but specifically to stop thoughts of suicide from escalating to action. Research has shown that connectedness is a key protective factor to avoid escalation and to guard against hopelessness.

Step 3: Put immediate safety first

If someone is at immediate risk of a suicide attempt, then their short-term safety has to be the top priority. Have they already attempted suicide? Do they have a specific plan to do so? If so, what’s the timing and method? Do they have access to their planned method? If the answer to most of those questions is “yes,” then immediate intervention is needed, such as calling for emergency services or, with their calm agreement, taking them to the emergency room. Exercise caution if you are taking an “at risk for suicide person” to the emergency room. It is possible the suicidal patient may, en route, have a change of heart, deciding they don’t want to go to the emergency room. The person may become combative or leap from the car.

The goal at this stage is to put as much distance as possible between the at-risk person and their chosen suicide method, especially if they have chosen a particularly lethal method. (As we’ve discussed previously, this is why access to firearms is such a critical factor.) The idea that once someone has a plan and they’ll just come up with a new plan is another myth; research has shown that if you can put safety measures in place to prevent an individual suicide attempt, you dramatically increase the chances of long-term survival.

Step 4: Connect with ongoing supports

Once a person’s immediate suicide risk is addressed, the next step is to connect them with ongoing support. That includes a safety plan: what will they do if they feel suicidal again? The 988 Lifeline is one such resource, along with local mental health resources and friends and family who can be contacted in a crisis.

It also includes finding ongoing resources, whether that’s a mental health professional, peer support, or community or spiritual resources. The key is to ensure that the at-risk person has access to resources who are trained and experienced in suicide prevention.

Step 5: The follow-up

The research is clear that following up with suicidal people after acute care is finished significantly reduces the risk of suicide. It’s important to check in, see how the person is doing, and ask if there is more you can do to help. Again, the key is maintaining that feeling of connectedness.

We all have a responsibility to do what we can to protect the people in our lives from suicide. The greatest responsibility, however, falls on medical professionals and mental health professionals who care for people at risk of suicide. If you lost a loved one to suicide completion, we would be honored to listen to your story and pursue accountability. Contact the Law Offices of Skip Simpson today for a free consultation. We’re based in Texas and serve families throughout the United States.

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