What To Do When Your Partner Wants to Kill Themself
DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. THIS IS NOT PROFESSIONAL ADVICE. IMMEDIATELY SEEK HELP IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS THINKING ABOUT ENDING THEIR LIFE.
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS ACTIVELY SUICIDAL, OR THREATENING TO HARM THEMSELF CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY.
Someone you care about just told you they want to kill themself.
Maybe it was a joke. Maybe they said it choking back tears. Maybe they said it in a rage. Maybe they muttered it under their breath.
We’re taught pretty early on to take this kind of threat very seriously.
But, if you’re a human, you’ve probably felt this way before too.
And you know that just because someone says they are suicidal, doesn’t mean they are going to act on it.
But, they could. Which is super scary.
So what are you supposed to do? How should you react? What if you go too far or worse, what if you don’t do enough and something terrible happens?
Don’t panic, here’s what you need to do:
Call for help
When someone tells you they want to kill themself, they are asking you for help.
Unfortunately, you probably don’t have all the necessary skills to help them.
Luckily, there are 24/7 hotlines that are staffed with people that do have these skills.
And they are ready to help you and help your friend.
Sure, if you can get the person in question to call a suicide hotline, that’s awesome. But most of the time, they won’t be into that, nor will they even see that as an option.
But that’s okay because you can call on their behalf. The professionals will help you figure out what to do and support you in supporting your friend.
Here’s a list of suicide hotlines all over the world:
A quick Google search may also turn up suicide hotlines in your area that might be able to connect you to more local resources.
When you call, just tell them know what’s happening. They will know what to do next.
2. Don’t freak out
In the meantime, don’t freak out.
If someone you care about tells you they are thinking about suicide, it’s very hard not to freak out.
Freaking out feels like a warranted and normal reaction. And it is a normal and warranted reaction.
But, it is isn’t a helpful reaction.
In fact, it can actually make things worse.
If you freak out, they may retreat or shut you out. If they feel like you’re going to get upset, they may hide their ideations from you. They may feel like they can’t come to you for help anymore.
Perhaps worst of all, they may resist seeking help from anyone in the future.
If it’s too late, and you’ve already freaked out, apologize. NOW.
Tell them you are sorry that you made their pain about you and that you’re there to love and support them no matter what. Promise you’ll stay calm and do whatever you can to help. Ask to spend some time with them. This will help to rebuild the trust.
Now just because I say don’t freak out, doesn’t mean you should be all casual about it and brush off their comments. Just understand that creating friction, closing yourself off to them, or making their pain about you, is not helping.
Sadly, it’s really common for people to want to kill themselves. Some would even say it’s normal.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act, nor does it mean we should take these declarations lightly. But understanding how truly common these feelings are can help us think a little differently about the situation and give us more perspective on what is happening for our friend.
What they are experiencing is quintessentially human and heartbreakingly common.
We just never talk about it, so it is difficult to see how common suicide, suicide ideation, and suicidal thoughts really are.
To risk sounding cliche, it’s actually an epidemic.
I know, it’s not recent, but did you know Marylin freakin’ Munroe killed herself?
The point is, despite their wealth, success, esteem, and all the help money and power could buy, these well-respected, accomplished people, still took their own lives.
Bottom line: Suicide is a thing, it’s always been a thing, and chances are, it’s going to be a thing for a long time. Don’t freak out.
3. Don’t assume.
When someone admits to you that they’d like to kill themself or they are thinking about it, it’s safest not to assume anything about their current mental state or life.
Don’t assume you know what their life is like or what they are going through.
Not only do you not have all the facts, you have no idea what it’s like to be them, you haven’t had their experiences, or been inside their brains.
People have secrets. Deep seated trauma. Undisclosed mental illness.
Assuming we know better than another person about their experience is a real quick way to alienate people and get them to shut you out.
And it’s being a bad friend/lover/partner/family member.
Maybe you don’t think they have a good reason for wanting to kill themself. Maybe you think they might be doing it for attention. Maybe you think suicide is selfish.
Best to keep that nonsense to yourself.
The truth is, you don’t know.
And also, you’re not a friggin’ therapist or psychologist, so don’t try to be.
Don’t let your unfounded beliefs about suicide and mental health block you from being of service to someone you care about.
Depression is fucked up. Life is kinda fucked up. People are super fucked up.
You don’t know what really is going on for them, or what is like, so don’t assume.
4. Keep the conversation going
Hearing that someone wants to kill themself is a conversation stopper if there ever was one.
It can be hard and awkward to keep the conversation going. You may constantly want to check in but it can be hard to know where to start or what to say.
And you definitely don’t want to say anything that might make things worse.
So take a deep breath and remember that this is still someone you care about. I’ve found it’s best to try and normalize what’s happening a bit.
That doesn’t mean you should be dismissive, but instead inquire thoughtfully and manage your reactions.
I’ve found that asking questions can be an effective way to keep the conversation going.
You can ask things like:
Do you have a plan?
When were you planning on doing this?
Have you been thinking about this for a long time?
Have you felt like this before?
Why do you think you feel this way?
Is there anything I can do to help?
What’s going on for you?
Have you ever had a friend talk about committing suicide before?
Will you talk to me before you do it?
Here’s the catch.
You might not like what they have to say. They might not want to talk. It might be extremely hard to hear what they are saying.
This is going to be a shitty conversation, so it’s best to just accept that from the outset.
And you have to be careful.
You’re not a therapist. You can’t tell them what to do. You can’t fix their life. All you can and should do, is listen.
Once you’ve weathered this storm together, sometime in the future when they are feeling better, you can come up with a plan to help them have these conversations with a skilled professional, instead of hoisting it all on you.
Because it will suck, and it will hurt. But in the moment we have to make a decision about our own boundaries and whether or not we can do this for them.
And don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.
If you’ve been touched by suicide before, this could be extremely upsetting. You might not be able to have this conversation with them.
That’s okay. You don’t have to feel ashamed and it’s not your fault.
Remember, you have to put on your oxygen mask on before helping others.
5. Get some backup
Okay now you need some backup.
Reach out to their friends and support network. This doesn’t mean advertising that the person you all care about is trying to end their life. Rather, reach out to friends, drop a line to a family member, or someone in their support network, and just say “Hey, this person is having a hard time. I know it would mean a lot to them if you reached out.”
And ask them to be discreet.
The person who you’re all supporting doesn’t need to know this was a concerted effort. This isn’t about lying or talking behind someone’s back, it’s about saving a life, and reminding someone you love that they have people who care.
Again, this call for backup does not have to involve breaking anyone’s trust, and you can involve people without airing all of your friend’s dirty laundry.
If you and the person you’re supporting are lucky enough to have a community that can help out, that’s awesome. But remember, don’t gang up on them.
For issues this sensitive, any group intervention is going to feel very, very bad.
Talk to them one on one. Spend quality time with them, just you and them. No one wants to feel like they are on trial, being grilled, or like they are a charity case.
And remember, you need support too. Talk to someone, preferably someone outside of their immediate network, that you can confide in. You need support too and you martyring yourself in an attempt to save them is not helpful for anyone.
You need to take care of yourself so you can help them.
6. Remember, it’s not about you.
Understand that no matter what, you can’t control what people do.
And though a lot of people paint suicide as a selfish act, that’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness and fear.
Warranted fear, but fear nonetheless.
Whether or not a friend, lover, family member, acquaintance, co-worker or whoever decides to end their life, you are not responsible.
You are accountable for your actions, how you conduct yourself, and how you manage your response to their disclosure, but ultimately, you are not responsible for whether or not they decide to take their own life.
Do what you can and know that their decision is their’s. You aren’t their therapist, you aren’t god and you have no place taking on the blame or responsibility for their mental health.
Now go hug someone you love.
I hope this helps.
And make sure to take care of yourself.
And please. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, reach out to a professional right away. If you are worried that someone is a threat to themselves or others, call 911 immediately.