How to Help an Acquaintance Cope with Suicidal Ideations

Do you know of someone who is on the verge of suicide, but is not a very close friend of yours? You must not allow the fact that you aren't close to keep you from helping him or her. Strangers on hotlines help these people every single day, and you can help, too. Here are some tips to help this person - by stepping up, you have just become his or her new best friend. To avoid the "them" problem, which becomes confusing, let's alternate between "him" and "her".


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    Be kind and show interest in him. When talking, make eye contact and if appropriate, gently touch his arm or shoulder as you chat. Sometimes the simple comfort of knowing someone else sees him as a person, or the comfort of the touch of another human being can be more meaningful than any words you can say. You don't need to get deep, you just need to show interest.
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    Try to keep a little privacy. If you're in a crowd, say, "I'm sorry, I can barely hear you, let's go over here where I can hear you." And steer her out of the middle of the crush - don't try to take her off alone just yet if you don't know her very well. Once you're off to the side just a little, say, "Now, you seem like a cool person, what kind of music do you like? Who's your favorite band?" Try to keep it cool and don't probe just yet, allow her to get that you're a friend and she doesn't need to guard herself so much with you.
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    Just come right out and talk to him - don't wait for him to talk to you. Once you have a little privacy, turn to him and with a friendly, warm, and concerned expression, say, "You know, you actually seem a little down. What's on your heart tonight?" If he says, "Nothing." and tries to shut you down, try putting your hand gently on his shoulder (but don't allow yourself to be misinterpreted as flirting - you know the difference between the types of touch and he will, too) and say, "I care, man. What's going on with you? You seem to be struggling with something. I may not be able to help, but I care." Hopefully, he will relent and tell you something helpful, such as that his parents have just broken up or that someone at school is bullying him.
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    Be empathetic and reflect her feelings back to her using Active Listening techniques. Once you start talking a little, try to draw her out. Instead of talking about yourself or your own experiences that have been tough but which you have risen above (she will see through it and shut you out), ask a few leading questions. Ask, "So what is it about your folks breaking up that feels so scary to you? They still both love you." or, "Listen, there are a lot of worse things that you could do than be gay/pregnant/flunking out. Are you worried your parents are going to freak out?" if the answer is "I don't know" or "yes" to either, instead of just nodding or saying, "uh huh," try saying, "Yeah, I can feel how nervous you are." Saying reflecting things like "I bet that's scary to you," or "Yes, I can hear your anger in your voice," helps in a lot of ways, but the most important way is that she understands that you actually are listening to her.
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    Never act as a moral authority. You are there to care and help, not judge or speculate that the reason this person is in despair is because of sin in his or her life. An example is if s/he says s/he is gay, and can't reconcile his or her faith with the fact of the newly recognized sexual orientation. Do not say, "Well, that is sinful behavior and if you want to feel better, you're going to have to get right with God." Please remember that it is God's job to convict, correct, and judge people, not yours. Just say something more like, "Well, you know what, I bet God loves you right where you are, and he would not want you to take your life over this. Let's go talk to my pastor if you don't want to talk with yours." Get him or her in touch with someone who can talk a faith-based talk, but not someone who will be harsh or judgemental - hopefully you do know someone like that.
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    Ask the question. If you are truly concerned by his demeanour and worried about his safety, even though it is the scariest thing in the world to do, and seems like the last thing you should do, you must pluck up your courage and ask some very important questions. "Are you thinking about hurting yourself?" "Do you have a plan for how you would do it?" and "Are you thinking about carrying out your plan tonight?" These are the most important questions of all, especially if one - or all - are "yes". It goes against your instinct, because your instinct is to just deny that it could be true, or it feels rude to say it so bluntly. But the truth is, many times the response is, "At last, somebody heard me." Often, a person with suicidal intentions feels she has been trying to tell people for a long time how miserable and how serious she is, but nobody wants to admit it. When you come out and ask, she knows she has made herself heard at last - and sometimes, that's all she really needs. Suicidal people often just feel invisible, they feel like nobody would notice or care if they died, and so the longer they walk around feeling that way, the more serious their intentions become.
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    Determine how lethal her intent is. If she says she is planning to hurt herself tonight with pills she has in her purse and shows them to you, that's like a 10 on the 1-10 scale - she means it. Don't leave her alone. Ask if you can get her to some help, and take her to an ER. Wait with her until they take her in and tell the doctor that she has told you she feels suicidal and has a plan and the means to carry it out. She will probably get really angry and say she's going to hate you forever (because once you say that, they will put her in a 72 hour observation state, and she will have to stay). That's okay - you got her to help, and you hope it's a long and healthy hate. If she says, "Well, if I was going to do it, I would probably use a gun." ask her if she has access to a gun. If she says no, or that her dad used to have one, it's probably less lethal, more like a 5 or 6. Still, this is a serious, serious situation, and this would be the time to try to convince her to seek help. Offer to go with her. Most of these people will continue to go on their own, but need support in order to take the first step toward treatment.
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    Ask if it's okay to pray for him. If you're a believer, by all means, be praying for him as you speak with him, but certainly, if there was ever a time to invoke a Higher Power, this is it. The act of asking "Can I pray for you, man?" is often very touching to him, simply because you have cared enough to ask. Keep it short - don't drone on for hours. Just make it something like, "God, my friend Jeff here is feeling sad and alone. Help him to feel your love and help him know that he's never alone. I feel honored that Jeff has shared his heart with me tonight, and I would just ask that you draw close to him and bless him where he needs it most. Keep him safe, even as I keep him in my prayers."
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    Take her home. Do not promise to keep her secrets. Tell her parents if she is a minor. This is the way to help, not to keep your promises not to tell anybody anything about what she said to you. If she's an adult, find out who her best friends are, if she has any siblings, and reach out to them with what you have learned. Tell them everything - there is no such thing as non-disclosure in suicide prevention. If she makes it through this, she will thank you.
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    Have faith and rest easy. No matter how you leave him, it has to be better than how you found him - just caring enough to be there is 95% of helping someone in this state. You must understand that you cannot save anyone who is deadly serious about taking his or her own life. But you can save someone who is just thinking about it - some are truly serious and just caring can save their lives, and there are some that sometimes try to "send a message" that they are serious, or "show someone," or just be dramatic by making an attempt - they don't mean to kill themselves, not really, but sometimes they do end up succeeding. You must remember that you're just one person, and hopefully, you put yourself between a hurting person and a tragedy. If it works, it's great. If it doesn't, you must not blame yourself.
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    Be discreet. Don't go blabbing about this all over school or whatever. Of course you must tell the people who can help - their family, one close friend, a doctor. But you don't need to go around telling everyone about all the details of your encounter. It will embarrass her and make her distrust everyone when she is already in a fragile state.
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    Stay in touch. If you do see your new friend again soon after and he appears to be feeling better, just go up and say, "Boy, am I glad to see you. You look like you're feeling better." Don't blow their cover to all of your friends. If others ask, "What was wrong?" Just say, "Oh, he was just having a bad night," and smile warmly. Then, be available. If he wants to talk some more, he'll know you're a friend he can trust, and he'll come to you.


  • If (s)he won't talk to you, do what you can to find out who his or her best friends are. See if you can chat with them, and let you know that you're worried about their friend. (S)he might talk to a trusted friend, even if (s)he doesn't want to open up to you.
  • Sometimes, an acquaintance is better for someone in this state of mind - there is no pressure to live up to imagined expectations of someone who has know him or her for a long time. You are a blank slate to him or her. You might get through where friends or family have failed.
  • Every city has a local crisis line. Know the number for yours. Look it up online or in the Yellow Pages. A lot of cities have a "211" number you can call, similar to 411 but for mental health specific information.


  • Do not worry about betraying someone's confidence or making them angry because you told a professional about their plans. You are saving a life. They may be angry at you at the moment, but it's worth it in the long run.
  • Don't shower them with unnecessary attention. If he or she wants some time and space, then respect that once the crisis is past.
  • Don't try to flatter him. It's insincere and he is hyper-sensitive. He'll see through it and it will be perceived as a cruel joke or a platitude that is not helpful.
  • If you fear that your acquaintance is about to commit suicide, then tell someone immediately, such as the police.
  • People with a history of suicide attempts are likely to consider it an option again. Even if a person has had many unsuccessful attempts it does not mean it isn't serious this time. You have to take every threat of suicide seriously.
  • Avoid using clich├ęs and platitudes like "Everything will be okay," or "You're strong, you can get through this," or "Life is beautiful and worth living," or any of that. If s/he felt that way, s/he wouldn't be contemplating suicide. Those things are not helpful - letting him or her know that you hear how serious this is - is.

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