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Illustration: Djanlissa Pringels

How to Support a Partner With Suicidal Thoughts

Asking all the “wrong” questions can actually lead to honest and open conversations, says psychologist Lidewy Hendriks.

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Each year, about 700,000 people around the world take their own lives, accounting for 1.3 percent of all deaths. For every one of those deaths, 20 more people attempt suicide. According to a 2019 report by the WHO, suicide rates are higher in low and middle-income countries, and men are up to 2.3 times more likely to die by suicide than women. The report also found that suicide rates have been steadily falling since the 2000s in every region of the world besides the continents of North and South America.


In Europe, suicide rates have decreased by a whopping 47 percent over the past 20 years, but they still remain one of the leading causes of death among teenagers, especially among minorities and people living in lower-income countries. Severe mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, are often behind suicide cases. But according to the WHO, many suicides also happen impulsively when someone feels overwhelmed by personal or financial stressors. Whatever the reason, suicides and suicide attempts can take a heavy toll on those who care for suicidal people and can have long-lasting effects on them.

Sophie*, 28, from the Netherlands, has been dating her boyfriend Maarten*, 38, for a few years. In late 2020, Sophie went to see him at his place after having a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. At that point, Maarten had been struggling with depression for a while and would sometimes say he no longer saw the point in living. 

When Sophie entered his house, she found him unconscious. Fortunately, the emergency services intervened in time and he survived. Maarten later claimed that he hadn’t intended to end his life, but the memory of that day has remained traumatic for both of them. 

Since then, the two have been spending some time apart. “It was Maarten who ended the relationship because he felt he couldn’t offer me a healthy partnership anymore,” says Sophie. Feeling guilty, Sophie reluctantly agreed to take a break and make herself the priority. “I know it's unhealthy, but letting go is really hard when you love someone.”


Lidewy Hendriks, a psychologist at the mental health platform MIND Korrelatie, says Sophie’s instinctively remorseful reaction is very common. “You love someone very much, you understand they’re suffering and that they would have liked for things to be different,” Hendriks says. “But ultimately, it’s your partner's responsibility to seek help. You are solely responsible for your own happiness and your own feelings.”

This is a difficult truth to hear for a person who loves someone who’s struggling. But in the long run, Hendriks says, “You can only provide support for as long as you can handle it." That’s why setting boundaries is so important. “A relationship is not meant to be a way of stopping someone from ending their life. A relationship based on dependency is not healthy,” Hendriks says. “It may sound very harsh but before you know it, often unconsciously and unintentionally, you might find yourself emotionally blackmailed.”

That’s pretty much what happened in Sophie’s relationship. She would often watch Maarten attempt to make a choice that could change his life for the better before self-sabotaging at the last minute. She’d try to support him and be understanding, but often felt confused by his inaction and varied explanations for it. “That is very difficult to witness,” says Sophie. “It’s hard to give responsibility to someone who is seemingly incapable of taking it.”


Of course, that doesn't mean you can't do anything at all. Hendriks says you can try to “activate” your partner – as clichéd as it sounds, sometimes fresh air and a little exercise can do the trick. For instance, “If you go shopping or for a walk, you can invite your partner to come along,” she says. 

However, even with the best of intentions, motivating someone who’s struggling with mental health can be challenging. “People who are depressed often lose interest in things they were previously passionate about,” says Hendriks. “It can be very difficult for them to be confronted with things they used to like but don't like anymore.” She also says that in these situations, the supporting partner can become too absorbed by their cheerleading role and forget to take care of themselves. She recommends they check in with themselves frequently, to make sure this dynamic doesn’t become a burden.

Hendriks says the one crucial thing a partner can do is try to talk openly about suicide. Since the topic is so uncomfortable and taboo, broaching the subject can be incredibly daunting – it’s natural to feel like an open conversation about suicidal thoughts might push a loved one over the edge. 

But in Hendriks’ experience, that’s not necessarily true. “During my studies, we did a training workshop where we were tasked with asking the teacher – who was playing the part of a suicidal person – all the ‘wrong’ questions,” Hendriks says. “We came to the conclusion that the more ‘wrong’ the question seemed at first, the more she would appreciate them. At least those questions were honest and open.” 


For instance, it might seem very crude to ask things like, “What’s the worst thought you’ve ever had?” or “Why do you feel like people would be better off without you here?”, but Hendriks says this is precisely what creates a strong basis for communication. “It signals you are open and strong enough to listen to the suicidal person’s darkest thoughts,” she says. Then, "It’s important to react by acknowledging the other person’s feelings instead of going back to your own, for instance, by replying with something like, ‘I would miss you so much!’”

Maarten has been in therapy on and off again for years and has worked very hard on himself, but he often falls back into old habits when the counselling stops. “The fact that he sometimes delays seeking help feels selfish to me,” says Sophie. “I don't think he realises he's dragging his loved ones down with him, but I also know it can be scary for him to seek help.”

Although it might be frustrating, progress in therapy is often not linear. Some people need a few months to get better, others need years or may never be OK without the need for constant professional support. Hendriks stresses that, as a partner, you are supposed to keep suggesting that your loved one seeks help instead of taking on the therapist role yourself. This remains a major stumbling point for Sophie. 


“Maarten really was my rock when I suffered a lot from PTSD, due to something that happened when I was young,” says Sophie. “That wasn’t easy on him either. He tried to save me, but he himself got overwhelmed.” Sophie thought about ending the relationship many times, something that Hendriks encourages people to consider if they feel they aren’t taking good care of themselves. 

But for now, the relationship is still worthwhile for her. “Maarten has learned to appreciate our relationship more,” she says. “We have started to carefully rebuild it, but I did tell him that this is only on the condition that he seeks help.” Sophie has now also been to therapy to deal with her own personal trauma, and she says that her doing so ended up setting a positive example for Maarten.

“The love between us is special. We understand each other. We know what it's like to feel completely lost,” she says. “What we have been through together has also made us stronger.”

* Names have been changed for privacy.

For anyone affected by the themes of this article, you can call Samaritans any time, day or night, on: 116 123