The most important thing to know is that if one of your friends is suicidal, you probably won’t know. You might even have no idea that they were depressed. People hide their issues and often suicide comes as a massive shock to everyone who knew the person. Encouraging people to reach out when they need help isn’t that useful.
If you know that someone has suicidal feelings, the single best thing you can do in the short term is keep them talking. Any topic will do. A person who is talking isn’t dead. Don’t judge, undermine or belittle anything they tell you. Don’t make light of things. Don’t argue with them by telling them they have so much to live for. Don’t make it about other people – being told to endure unbearable pain for someone else’s comfort doesn’t actually make people feel better. Don’t make it about you.
Most of the time you won’t know if someone else is struggling. What this means is that helping your suicidal friend survive actually depends on what you do all the time. How would you speak and act if you thought anything you said or did might be a life or death issue for someone else? With this in mind, perhaps we’d see fewer people on social media telling others to delete themselves or get in the sea. Perhaps we’d see less violence in language. Perhaps we’d cut back on the mockery, ridicule, shaming, put downs and other casual forms of cruelty.
When we make nasty comments about celebrities for being fat, or depressed, or not looking pretty enough – they will probably never know, but your suicidal friend might think this is what you think of them.
It may sound like a lot of work to have to pay attention to everything you say and to act like someone’s life could depend on it. One of the contributing factors to people being suicidal can often be that maintaining the comfort of comfortable people is treated as more important than taking care of the person in crisis. I’ve seen this kind of shut-down many times. When people tell you they are tired of your gloom, bored of you talking about your issues… depressed people often hear that someone else’s comfort is more important than keeping them alive. It’s done so casually, carelessly and off the cuff, often, that I’m not even sure most of the people doing it have any idea that they might be pushing someone towards the edge. And some of them do know, and fat shame and disability shame people they know under the banner of ‘only trying to help’.
Saving lives means being as actively kind as you can manage. All the time. It means thinking about how your words and actions might impact on other people. Paying lip service to mental health does nothing. Caring for people actually takes effort and attention. Finding out how to support people takes effort. Finding out what allegedly normal speech can do to vulnerable people is uncomfortable. Damage isn’t all about big drama, it can be the cumulative effect of countless small woundings.
You probably won’t get a cinematic moment when you grab your friend and bodily prevent them from jumping off a bridge and thus heal their pain and make them want to live again. You probably won’t ever know if what you said or did made a difference, either to save someone, or to push them closer to death. What you do, matters.