Do you sense that someone close to you doesn’t seem to be doing well, or isn’t being their usual self? Maybe you’re worried about their safety, or maybe you just want to accompany them through a difficult period, so that they can access professional resources. Here is some information and tools to help you better support someone experiencing difficulties.

How do I talk to a loved one about suicide?

Talking about suicide isn’t always easy, but the only way to find out if someone is having suicidal thoughts is to ask them directly. By doing so, you don’t have to worry that it will be interpreted in favour of going ahead with the act. On the contrary, the person may feel relieved to confide in you about their intentions, if such is the case.

If you feel comfortable having an initial discussion with the person, here’s an approach that will enable you to address the issue and help them identify the most appropriate help service for their situation.

  1. Establish a climate of trust and choose the right time to tackle the subject.
  2. Express your concerns.
  3. Encourage the person to talk to you about what they are going through.
  4. Ask for clarification of worrisome comments.
  5. Ask if what they’re going through makes them think about suicide. For example, “are things so hard that you think about dying?” or “does it hurt so much that you ever think about taking your own life?”

Don’t hesitate to visit this webpage for more information on how to deal with these delicate issues.

What signals should you look out for if you’re worried about your loved one’s mental health?

There are several signs that can raise concerns. Is the person …

  • Losing touch with friends and becomes increasingly isolated?
  • Showing acute signs of sadness or cries incessantly?
  • Has trouble sleeping? Confuses night and day?
  • Eats less and less, or all the time?
  • Changes their drinking or substance use habits?
  • Fumbles for words, expresses themselves with difficulty and speaks incomprehensibly?
  • Has trouble concentrating when watching TV, watching a movie, or reading a book?
  • Forgets to do their daily chores?
  • Can’t follow a conversation and seems completely absent?
  • Hears voices or sees things you can’t hear or see?
  • Acts strangely, feels spied on and watched?

If you observe more than one significant change in the person’s behaviours, emotions, and judgment, it’s time to discuss the situation with them.

Tips for communicating with a loved one experiencing personal difficulties

It’s normal to be unsure of how to proceed, as discussing mental health and personal difficulties can make some people feel uncomfortable, nervous, or embarrassed.  While you don’t have to be an advocate to deal with this type of situation, it’s a good idea to be prepared. Here are a few tips:

Stay calm. If you’re emotional, you may have trouble thinking clearly. You can also write down what you want to say in advance, to help you get your ideas straight and communicate your message.

Share your observations without judgment. Bear in mind that the person may not have realized that they have changed or may think that those around them haven’t noticed. Talk about what you see and feel. You could say: “I’ve noticed ‘X’ since ‘Y’ happened. I care about you, and it worries me to see you like this. Would you like to talk about it?”

Welcome emotions. Don’t deny the emotions the person is sharing with you, they are real. Avoid lecturing them or telling them that all they have to do is take their mind off it and it will pass. This will only serve to put pressure on them or feed a feeling of shame, which could lead them to close up.

Reassurance. Without playing it down, you can agree that it’s normal to feel this way. Remind them that there are solutions and help to get through a difficult period, and that you can help them.

Encourage support. Although you’ve initiated the discussion, not all the support that you offer should be on your shoulders. Try to establish a safety net with your loved one and set limits by saying, “I’m not equipped to handle this…”. For example, you could ask: “Would it help to talk to a professional about what’s going on?” or “Is there a family member or friend we could talk to about this?”

Discuss the situation with another person whomyour loved one respects and with whom they have a good bond. Perhaps this person will also have noticed changes, bring a complementary perspective or be in a better position to address the situation with the person. If necessary, check with your loved one before proceeding.

Find a way of communicating that makes it easier to talk about more tense or delicate subjects. For some, this might mean texting in the evening, or going for a walk or a coffee.

Offer practical help. To strengthen your bond and make the person feel they can count on you, you may want to focus on the services you can provide, such assetting up appointments, finding services or going on errands with them.

Take care of yourself too

It’s not always easy to know how to act or what to say to help others without burning out. You should also know that it can be demanding to support, or worry about someone, over a long period of time, especially when you’re living together. There’s no harm in taking a step back and getting some help for yourself in the process. This doesn’t mean you withdraw from the situation: to be able to take care of the other person, you have to take care of yourself too!

In all cases, even if you feel you’re not doing enough for the person, remember that the best way to support is to listen. Unless the person’s safety is at risk – in which case, ask for immediate support – it’s important to respect his or her wishes as to the help he or she would like to receive. You can’t impose your support, just as you can’t force them to choose a treatment or disclose the content of their discussions with their doctor. If you do, your relationship with the person and his or her trust could be affected, and that’s not what we want.

What do you do when someone shares their suicidal intentions with you and you fear for their safety?

Offer to take them to the nearest hospital. If they refuse, contact emergency services (911) and don’t hesitate to contact the Suicide Prevention Centre at 1-866-APPELLE for support in managing the situation.

If you don’t fear for the person’s safety but you’d like to help them:

Contact a professional anyway to share the situation and find out what services might be available to the person. You can also contact the Suicide Prevention Centre at 1-866-APPELLE or Info-Social at 811 (option #2).

WHAT To remember

  • The more precise the details of the act (how, where, and when), and the closer the planned time for the act, the more urgent the need to intervene.
  • It’s not all up to you. Assessing the risk of suicide is a complex task that requires the support of a professional.
  • You don’t have to agree to keep this unveiling a secret, and thus remain worried and powerless.
  • You’ll never regret taking the necessary steps to ensure your loved one’s safety.

References

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Association québécoise de prévention du suicide. Suicide.ca : Aider, informer et prévenir le suicide au Québec

Here to help (2021). Helping a Friend You’re Worried About

Association canadienne pour la santé mentale. Comment obtenir de l’aide

CAP Santé mentale. Le comportement de votre proche vous inquiète?

Credit

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Contribution to the article: Isabelle Queval, psychologist

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