Suicide takes the lives of over 40,000 people in the United States each year and that number is on the rise. Suicide is not something we can always predict because so many people internalize their struggles rather than reaching out for help that could have saved their life. With everything from the global pandemic, natural disasters, and the national decline in mental health, it is more important than ever to check in on our loved ones. Here are five ways we can do just that.
1. Create and maintain a support system
A strong support system can be extremely beneficial to the mental health of your loved ones. It is so important that we let loved ones know that they are not alone and that at the end of the day, they have resources to turn to. This could be a circle of trust among friends and family, finding positive connections through social networks, or even joining a club with likeminded individuals. Any of these options will create connections and help fight off loneliness. We should encourage loved ones to make and maintain connections like these, as well as maintaining our role in that.
Reach out to make plans and ask, "How was your day/week?"
Check-in with your loved ones and ask them, "How have you been feeling lately?"
These small gestures show you care about their mental state and that you want them to be an active part of your life.
2. Be present during conversation
Someone struggling with suicidal ideation, or any sort of suicidal thoughts, often feels as though they are a bother to the ones they care about. These feelings of being unimportant and unworthy of love will make them less likely to reach out for help. This is why it's so important to express gratitude and love for the people around us. Even little phrases like "I'm sorry, I'm probably talking too much" or "No, I'm OK, it's not important" should be curved. No matter how big or small a comment might be, we should make sure that the person we are talking to knows that we are eager to listen and that their thoughts are important. It may also be helpful to put away electronics and focus on the person, ensuring they have your full attention.
3. Pay attention to little details
Similar to depression, suicidal ideation doesn't just appear out of nowhere, full force. It often slowly creeps into the brain and becomes more prominent over time. Pay attention to the little details of your loved ones' behavior. If you begin to notices things like a decline in hygiene, the person becoming more and more distant in conversation, inability to keep their living area clean, or general disarray, is might be beneficial to reach out. You can simply ask how they are doing or where they feel their mental state is, but include that you have noticed some change in how they are acting. This will let them know that you are paying attention to them, that they are important enough to you to do that, and loved enough to have someone show concern in their well being.
4. Practice understanding
When a loved one expresses thoughts of suicide or any kind of mental struggle, it can be hard to process. For many, the first reaction will be to ask "Why?" This is something we should try to shy away from. In many cases, the person experiencing these feelings may not even know for sure themselves. Instead, we should try our best to take a more understanding approach. Asking "How can I help?" may put less pressure on the individual to decipher all of their feelings, and shifts the focus to their well being rather than our confusion. Reaching out doesn't always mean directly asking someone if they are OK — it can also be asking how you can make their situation better.
5. Formulate a safety plan
If your loved ones have a history of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, or manic episodes, pay attention to warning signs and patterns during those times because they will most likely arise again. Behaviors like elevated aggression, withdrawing from family and friends, and mood swings could allude to a crisis developing.
It is also important to pay attention to physical changes, as well, such as loss or gain of weight, dark circles from lack of sleep or over-sleeping, and injuries to the body. By knowing your loved ones' warning signs, you can provide them with resources before the crisis develops and worsens. Suggest that they socialize with people that distract them from negativity, contact family or friends that are close to them and have experience in handling a crisis, and have a list of local mental health professionals, emergency rooms, and numbers for hotlines in case of an emergency. Creating these safety measures for our loved ones can provide them with a sense of security and be a difference between life and death.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-273-8255