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What Else Can I Do to Help a Suicidal Family Member or Friend?

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

In addition to the supportive steps you can take as described previously, there are a few other things you can do to help lower someone's suicidal risk.

women talking outsideYou can remind the suicidal person to tell their physician and/or pharmacist that they have been suicidal, or offer to communicate this information yourself. When doctors and pharmacists know that someone is suicidal, they will often prescribe smaller amounts of medication at a time. This makes it more difficult for people to stockpile medication for a future suicide attempt.  They will also avoid prescribing medications that can easily be lethal when taken as an overdose.

You can also watch for stockpiling of medications. This can be moving them from the approved containers and placing them near the bedside, or obvious signs that someone is taking pills incorrectly. You can also watch for someone who drinks alcohol with medications that have a warning to the effect that such behavior is dangerous.

Obviously, you cannot be with and watch a person 24 hours a day. However, having an honest and open conversation about your concerns with regard to medication safety, storage and proper use may help. In addition to securing medications, be sure to remove guns, knives and other lethal weapons from the suicidal person's house or otherwise secure guns and weapons in a manner that makes it inconvenient for the potentially suicidal person to get at them. At the very least, separate the ammunition from the weapons themselves and/or remove the ammunition from the home so that a little work is necessary before a gun could be used in a suicide attempt.

You can help the suicidal person to anticipate likely suicide triggers. If your friend or family member typically becomes depressed and/or suicidal in response to specific situations or on specific anniversaries, talk about this pattern with the suicidal person. Help them make a concrete plan for keeping themselves safe through that difficult situation or time period. For instance, if you know that the person usually feels bad each year around the time that they were divorced, offer to talk and/or engage in an activity on that difficult weekend that might distract them. Also, encourage the person to talk about the difficult upcoming event with his or her therapist before that event occurs so that a good plan can be created.

You can help the suicidal person practice new coping skills they have learned. If, for instance, the person has therapy "homework," offer to get involved as is appropriate. Complement the person on any changes you notice that they have made for the better. For example, mention improvements in their ability to control their temper or tolerate a situation that used to be difficult to tolerate. Pointing out even small accomplishments can help build up a person's self-esteem.

You can watch for new signs of suicidal thinking (a suicide relapse), or watch for a worsening of someone's level of suicidality (click here to return to our list of warning signs). Again, remember that it's better to ask someone directly about their suicidal thoughts and feelings rather than beating around the bush in an indirect manner.

While going about the business of being helpful and expressing caring support, keep in mind that while "you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make him drink". That is, you can't control whether the suicidal person will respond well to your assistance. Despite your best efforts; no matter how helpful and loving you are toward suicidal people, they still may feel badly about themselves and their situation, and they may still ultimately take their life. You cannot "will" someone to live through your good intentions and assistance. You can only do so much- and the ultimate decision to continue living rests with the person him or herself.