What to do if you walk in on someone trying to commit suicide
Suicide is a prevalent mental health concern. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately one million people die from suicide each year. Suicide has been identified as the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 25 and 34 and the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24. The rate of suicide among individuals who are 45 to 54 years of age is higher than any other age group. Suicide rates for females are highest among that age group. For males, the highest suicide rates are for those aged 75 or older. While females attempt suicide approximately two or three times more often than males, males are more likely to die from suicide than females. Research has shown that males account for almost 80-percent of all suicides. This could be due, in part, to the nature of their methodology. Males commonly choose firearms, while females opt for poisoning.
For those who attempt, but do not complete, suicide, help remains available, especially from family and friends.
- remain calm, but act quickly
- seek medical attention
- listen carefully and closely
- instill hope and follow through with the person
- seek self-care
- leave the person alone
- be critical
- promise confidentiality
- try to solve the person’s problems
- engage in self-blame
Do remain calm, but act quickly
As difficult and upsetting as it may be to walk in on someone who has made or is in the midst of a suicide attempt, it is imperative to remain calm. He or she is likely in a very fragile emotional state. Any intense or negative emotional reaction from a family member or friend can exacerbate his or her fragility. Most importantly, be sure to remove any potential means of committing suicide that may still be accessible to the person.
Do seek medical attention
Depending upon the manner in which the person attempted suicide and the severity of the attempt, he or she may have injuries that warrant medical attention. If the person is still actively suicidal when you observe them, it is imperative that you call 911. Be prepared to state your location, the nature of the injuries, and the belief that this was a suicide attempt. Emergency responders will provide the necessary care. In most cases, if a person is deemed to be a danger to him- or herself, then a hospital admission will occur.
Do listen carefully and closely
Oftentimes, a person who attempts suicide has reached a point where he or she believes that no one understands or can relate to him or her. While it is not wise to say, “I know how you feel,” it can be beneficial to simply listen to the person. Allow him or her the opportunity to discuss the events in his or her life and the thoughts and feelings about those circumstances. It is not your job to solve the person’s problems, but you can provide a listening ear that enables him or her to feel heard and valued. A simple validating statement, such as, “It sounds as if that was a very difficult experience for you,” can also be helpful.
Do instill hope and follow through with the person
People who attempt suicide typically have a profound sense of hopelessness. They do not believe that their circumstances can or will improve. They think that the only way in which they can help themselves is through suicide. As someone who has learned about a suicide attempt, you have the important opportunity to inform them differently. Again, you do not want to actually seek solutions for them, as that is the role of a mental health professional. However, you can reassure them that help is available to mitigate their distress and that you, personally, care about them. This can also decrease their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
In addition, to demonstrate that care and concern, it is important that you follow through with ensuring that they receive the help that is necessary. If emergency medical services are not needed at that moment, be sure to schedule an appointment as soon as possible with a primary care physician or a mental health professional. Accompanying them to the appointment also displays your concern and increases the likelihood that they will actually attend the appointment. Lastly, encourage them to follow through with any long-term recommendations for ongoing care, such as psychotherapy appointments or medications.
Do seek self-care
Walking into a situation where a person is attempting or has just tried to commit suicide can be very traumatic. Once you conclude that he or she is no longer in an imminent, life-threatening state and is receiving the appropriate treatment, it is important that you take care of yourself. Seeking your own psychotherapy services can be beneficial as well as engaging in healthy lifestyle habits. You can also consider inviting the person to join you while exercising, when attending a religious or spiritual service, or when socializing with others, as these activities can provide mutual aid to both of you.
Do not leave the person alone
As mentioned above, after attempting suicide, a person remains in a very fragile state. To be sure that he or she does not complete what was started, it is important to physically remain with him or her at least until the appropriate professionals arrive.
Do not be critical
When first encountering a person who has attempted suicide, it is not prudent to criticize his or her choice to do this, attack his or her perspective, or cite reasons as to why suicide is morally or ethically wrong. These approaches serve no purposes other than to further lower the person’s self-worth and increase his or her feelings of distress. While you may not agree with his or her choice, he or she has made this decision because of the belief that this is the only option he or she has. Your role is to ensure that the person receives professional care, not to demean or criticize him or her.
Do not promise confidentiality
When a person’s life is in danger, confidentiality simply does not apply. You may be the primary means of communicating the person’s status to an emergency responder or medical or mental health professional in order to keep him or her safe and alive. You may not be able to maintain any promise of confidentiality that you make to the person.
Do not try to solve the person’s problems
A person who has attempted suicide is in need of professional mental health and, perhaps, medical services. Aside from being supportive and ensuring that he or she receives the professional services that are needed, your role does not include finding solutions to his or her problems, which are likely quite complicated and longstanding.
Do not engage in self-blame
As noted above, the person’s challenges that have contributed to the suicide attempt are likely complex and multifaceted. You are not responsible for someone’s depression and/or happiness. Regardless as to whether any previous conflict or tension existed between you and the person, your role at the moment is to ensure that the individual receives the professional help and support that he or she needs. It is imperative that you stay focused on that role.
Suicide can affect all individuals regardless of their age, gender, cultural background, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation. People who have attempted suicide are typically overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, loneliness, and despair. They truly do not envision any other alternative to their circumstances then suicide. If you find yourself in a situation where you observe someone who is in the midst of or who has already attempted suicide, there are several ways in which you can offer assistance. Being familiar with these options before finding yourself in such a precarious situation is truly the first undertaking and a major step toward ensuring your family member or friend receives the life-saving assistance that he or she deserves.