A friend recently attempted to kill herself. What can I do to stop her trying again?

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The Guardian

A very dear friend of mine recently attempted suicide. Thankfully she survived, but I am very worried about what moved her to attempt to take her own life, and also the possibility of her trying again.

She has been in pain for some time, and has mentioned suicide before. As a social and caring person with many friends, she has been open about her sadness, and we have tried to support her. She has also been in therapy and is on medication for depression (it’s worth adding that she mentioned suicide before taking medication, so the suicidal thoughts are not a side effect). Unfortunately, none of this has seemed to work. So what to do?

I am so sorry to hear about your friend, and by proxy for you, because it can be very tough supporting someone through this. I consulted Samaritans, and listening volunteer Lucia helped me reply to you. She suggested some areas you might talk about with your friend: “There’s obviously a lot of emotional pain. I would start by asking her, was there a trigger or life event that started this off?” You might also want to say something like, “I’m very worried about the pain and hurt, how can I help you?”

Your friend may not know what the trigger was, or it may take her time to work out how or whether you can help. Lucia wanted to stress you shouldn’t be afraid to ask if your friend is feeling suicidal again. I think we fear mentioning the word, as if by doing so we will make it happen, but it’s important to have these conversations.

“Although we try not to make people feel guilty I would ask if there’s anything your friend might miss about life. I’d use the word ‘might’, not ‘would’, as ‘would’ sounds very final,” adds Lucia.

You could also ask her if there’s anything she could change that might make things better for her. Maybe something like: “Is it that you really don’t want to be here, or do you want to be free of emotional pain?”

Try not to act shocked by anything your friend says. Instead, just be there with them. You could also recommend contacting Samaritans. But as Lucia said, sometimes when people are in that space it can take a lot of energy. You can do a “third-party referral” where you ring or email Samaritans and ask them to contact your friend. If you did this by phone, the Samaritan volunteer would talk to you and make sure you, too, are OK. Whether you tell your friend you’ve done this is up to you, the Samaritans would still call them (but they don’t leave a message if the phone goes to voicemail).

My advice is to ask your friend to make a safety plan with you, for when she feels at crisis point. It could be: Step One, call a friend (maybe you?); Step Two, call another friend, etc. Also, if your friend has been on medication for a while, might a trip to the GP for a review be in order?

Both Lucia and I want to stress that you sound very kind and caring, but you’re not responsible for your friend, even with all the support you can offer, you may never be able to solve things. Lucia suggested you do this by saying to your friend, “I hear what you’re saying, I feel very sad you’ve got to this point. If you want to talk about things I can be there for you, or just sit in silence with you. I can get you help if you’re open to it, but it’s your decision.” This is hard to come to terms with. But it’s also important you have boundaries and look after yourself.

If you have been affected by this issue, you can find out more at samaritans.org; young people can find out more at papyrus-uk.org.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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July 15, 2022 at 06:36PM Annalisa Barbieri

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