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What to Say to a Suicidal Friend, from People Who’ve Been There

Helping a suicidal loved one often means a drastic shift in your relationship. We asked people who have been there what they needed most in a friend.

by Laetitia Laubscher
Oct 13 2016, 12:00am

All artwork by Adam Tan. Images supplied courtesy of his family, with thanks. See more of Adam's work on Facebook

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Our suicide rate hangs in our country's hall of shame. New Zealand has the highest youth-suicide rate in the OECD. In 2012, the most recent stats available, 549 people died by suicide, and there were 3,031 recorded intentional self-harm hospitalizations. One of the main contributing risk factors to suicide is a lack of social support. Since it's unlikely that 12.1 out of every 100,000 New Zealanders are living as hermits, part of the problem is that the people closest to those feeling suicidal don't know how to be there for them. Of course, there are still suicides in situations where people are surrounded by support, but the risks are lower.

It can be bone-chilling to think about the day a friend decides to let you in on the minefield that is his or her headspace. The sudden onus of support might be a drastic gear shift in your relationship, and you might even find yourself seeking out the wisdom of the search engine god of information Google to answer the pressing "what the fuck do I do now?" question. But its generic answers can only go so far. And so can this article. Everyone's an individual and will experience his or her mental-health issues in a different way. But as a starting point for you, we rounded up a few mental-health veterans to talk about what kind of support they needed from those around them when they were going through hard times.

"If I let someone in on what I was going through, it would throw them off," says George, 21. "Going through" is a euphemism for having overwhelming impulses to swerve into incoming traffic.

After such a big disclosure, many people end up feeling overwhelmed, and even ghosting their friend with mental-health issues. "I had family and close friends who didn't know what to do and didn't do anything—it was hard for me not to be resentful of that," says Liv, a 25-year-old who began to struggle with depression at 14, but didn't get diagnosed until she was 18.

It's hard to know how to react to the afflicted person, and what you need to do to support them. George says if someone has the courage to approach you and ask for help, the first thing running through your mind should be what to do to follow up. "It could be a text over breakfast the next day or asking them to catch up for coffee on the weekend, anything," says George. "What you do is nowhere near as important as just following up."

Not everything you do will help, but some of it might. "People react in different ways at different times, but also accept help in different ways. Some friends would try things and I would snap at them, and they just wouldn't try again. But others would keep trying until they found something that helped," says Liv. "Sometimes people, not even close friends, would surprise you and give you exactly what you need."

To Elle, a 25-year-old who became depressed in her early 20s due to a chemical imbalance in her brain, support meant "just acknowledging it. So when I cancel on friends because I can't leave my house due to crippling anxiety, they just go 'yup, sweet, let me know when you want to next catch up' and don't nag me."

For Liv, it meant knowing that she wasn't a burden to those around her and that she could rely on them, free of judgment, when she really needed them. "What helped me was knowing that there were people I could call at 3 AM in the morning, and they would come over and be there for me."

George just needed people to understand the tangible impact the mental illness had on his everyday life. "You don't want someone to 'feel sorry' for you that you haven't slept for days because of your anxiety. You want someone to be mindful of what you're going through and how it [lack of sleep] would impact you."

It's not always easy knowing what your friend might need, though. "It's just about knowing the person and picking up on non-verbal body signals," says Liv. "You can ask what they need too, but it depends on the person or how fragile they're feeling whether they can give you an answer."

If they're not giving you any indication of their needs, it's important not to just go Mayo Clinic on them just because you're feeling unsure what to do. Liv found people belittling you—giving generic googleable advice like "go for a run" or being dismissive of what you're going through because you're feeling horrible and you haven't done the "obvious things" like exercise—"incredibly annoying."

"With some people, it feels like there's a mental list they're going through in their heads, and they're checking off the advice they need to give you and the things you need to do to be 'healthy' again," says George.

"It is a fine line between being there to support you but not babying you," says Liv. "I would get defensive if they tried to spoon-feed me by saying stuff like, 'OK, it's time to get up and go for walk'—I'm an adult. Don't take away my autonomy. Don't make me feel like a victim."

Doing all the right things won't necessarily always help anyway. "I do all the right things, I exercise, eat well, go outdoors, but it doesn't help. It's frustrating," says Elle.

People going through mental-health struggles also don't expect you to know how they feel; they actually hate it when you pretend you do. "You can't assume how someone feels, even if you've had depression before. I used to hate people saying, 'I know how you feel, this is what we'll do.' It's better instead to say, 'This is shit, what can I do?'" says Liv.

"Distinguish between facts and your opinion," says George. "Assuming you know what's going on isn't helpful. Instead of saying, 'You're this and you should this,' you should say something like, 'I can't understand what's going on, but what I see is this and I think this.'"

Ultimately, supporting people is about understanding that what they're going through has a tangible effect on their lives and their mental state, and helping them through it by being there for them. It doesn't mean constructing them as victims, and it doesn't give you a license to control their lives and choices for them—they're the only ones who are able to get themselves through it.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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