Research from the Princes Trust shows that the number of teenagers who think life is simply not worth living has doubled to 1 in 5. Teenage suicides have also nearly doubled in 5 years.
These are stark statistics. It also means that most teenagers have at least one friend who thinks about killing themselves.
I have spent years learning about psychology, mentoring, counselling and psychotherapy to learn skills in how to support clients in some very dark places. One of the earliest things which motivated me to gain these skills was knowing that some of my childhood and teenage friends felt able to confide in me when they were hurting. I found it easy to listen and love them but sometimes I did not know how to respond.
In this blog I want to share some of what I have learnt which might help anyone currently trying to support friends through dark places.
There are two reasons you know a friend is suicidal, at least one must be true.
Right place, right time
Perhaps the reason you know is that you happened to walk in when they were standing on the edge or ask at a time when they just needed to tell someone. In this situation there is always the choice to walk by or step in. The fact you are reading this indicates a step-in mentality or at least a walk-back one.
The other reason you know is that the person told you. Maybe they chose you specifically, having identified something trustworthy and approachable about you. Or maybe they announced it generally and you are one of the ones taking it seriously. If they have confided in you, this must mean there is a level of trust. They may not have told many people but something about you has allowed them to tell you.
In either case, you now find yourself in a helper role, having to think how best to respond.
The main quality you need to support them is being “friendly”. Love them, be there for them, keep inviting them to things. Sometimes there is a feeling of overwhelm, or lack of confidence “I don’t know what to say so I will not call”, that is not helpful. If you have an urge to call them then follow that.
Stay calm. Remember that many people have suicidal thoughts, some people have plans and only a few people actually do commit suicide. Listen to them, sometimes having someone to share the dark thoughts with can make the thoughts less noisy inside the person’s head.
Be patient. It could take a long time for the thoughts to go away, for some people they might never go away completely.
Be open-hearted. Listen to what they are saying and allow yourself to feel whatever you feel. The aim is not to make it about you, e.g. saying “if you die I would be upset” just adds another burden onto your friend and won’t help them. But sometimes saying “I hear you that you want to hurt yourself and that upsets me because I love you. I know you think you are rubbish but I have seen you be kind, witty, motivated…”. There is nothing wrong with showing your feelings, sometimes if a person is very cut off from their own feelings, it can be helpful to see those feelings in someone else. However try not to go overboard – if you are feeling rage or sobbing uncontrollably you may not be in the best state to support your friend – remember to stay calm!
Be dependable. If you can’t face phoning again tonight can you send a message? And if you say you are going to meet them can you try not to cancel. This also means don’t commit to supporting in ways that you can’t do.
As a professional, I have a 4 legged support structure.
- Supervisor. I have a supervisor who helps me develop as a dramatherapist to make sure I am able to support my clients with whatever they want to explore. This is someone I can say “I tried this but it didn’t work” or “I think there might be something my client is not telling me” or whatever it is. My supervisor has been practising for many years and is able to offer me suggestions, reading and encouragement.
- Therapy. I have a personal therapist I see from time to time, so that if any of my clients stories remind me about my own story, I have a constructive place to untangle my feelings, process my own parts and make sure I am available to listen to my clients without being distracted.
- Friends and family. I do not talk to friends and family about my clients but I do have people around me who sometimes I can say “I had a tough day”. They know when I need some time with just me and my music and when I need to break out the board games.
- Hobbies. My current hobbies include a dance class, crochet and dog walking. These are things I enjoy doing. They are spaces where I can be just me, being energetic and creative in the moment. There have to be some switch off times.
As a teenager, sometimes when my friends confided, I didn’t have anyone to talk to without betraying their trust.
This is a big thing to help someone to hold and I don’t recommend you try to do it alone. Encourage your friend to talk to someone like a therapist, parent, or doctor, or teacher. Make sure you also have someone you can talk to – not someone who will turn it into gossip, but someone who can help you. You might want to think about the above 4 legged support structure for yourself. Maybe a trusted adult could act as your supervisor, maybe a parent could listen to your worries about yourself.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed by holding other peoples problems, which can lead to burn out where you just can’t do it anymore, you need to be supported to help others.
Also remember, if your friend is suicidal, they may not want you to tell anyone, and it is possible that you could loose their friendship if you do break the secret, but if you don’t break the secret and they go through with killing themselves then you have lost their friendship forever. In therapy we don’t talk about secrets – secrets are heavy burdens to hold. Instead we talk about confidentiality – “I am not going to make this school gossip but if I believe you or someone else is in danger then I will tell the people I need to tell in order to make sure you are safe and have the right support.”
Your friend also needs that four legged support structure (or at least three of the legs – they might not need the supervisor). In the ideal scenario, they would have their own professional therapist who they could talk to and you could be one of the friends. Encourage them to look for this as a good therapist can make a big difference. Sometimes a good teacher or youth worker will also have some of the skills needed to be this role.
If there is someone else who can sit in the darkness, sometimes this frees you up, in the friend role, to hold the flash light – come over here and play the Switch, lets go to the shops together, lets see a movie or watch football or whatever it is that you do together. You might sometimes still listen to the darkness but it is easier if you can say “have you told [name] about that too?”
There are some people who use the threat of their own suicide to control others. E.g. “If you leave me I’ll kill myself”. Be very careful here and look after yourself. This is a form of emotional abuse against you. The only person ultimately in charge of a person’s life is the person themselves. You can help someone to face their darkest thoughts but you can not be responsible for those thoughts. If this dynamic is happening, then you might no longer be the right person to support your friend.
The other control dynamic is that sometime people encourage a suicidal person to go through with it. Perhaps with a suicide pact or perhaps encouraging someone else to act out their own thoughts. If you know someone is doing this to your friend then you need to tell an adult who can help.
We all need friends and sometimes we all have dark thoughts. It is good that you want to help but make sure you are looking after yourself. You also need support and balance in your life – this will allow you to be a better friend.
When you are talking to your friend, listen to them, accept what they are saying, affirm the good qualities you see in them and be brave enough to sit with them in their darkness to tell them they are not alone.
Being a friend is not always easy, and sometimes you might not get everything right, you might say or do something which upsets your friend. Try to be honest with them and show that you still care for them. They don’t need you to be perfect, they need you to be real.
What do you think?
I would love to hear from you in the comments about other qualities you need to support a suicidal friend.
I would also love to hear where you have found the 4 legged support structure for yourself? I mentioned therapist, doctors, parents, teachers, youth workers but I am sure I am missing some of the supportive people out there.