How To React When Your Friend Is Talking About Suicide

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
With its gripping story, visceral emotions, and penchant for stirring up controversy, Netflix's 13 Reasons Why has also begun several difficult discussions about suicide. Specifically, the way it's portrayed onscreen, and how we can be better at handling mental health issues IRL. So what can you do to help friends who are talking to you about hurting themselves? A lot, it turns out.
To start, it's surprisingly important to pay attention to the emotions your friend's behavior triggers in you. "If you’re feeling uncertainty or fear, it’s always worth mentioning," says Julie Larson, LCSW, a therapist based in NYC. "[It honors] that feeling that you're having about your friend, but it also sends the message that you care deeply."
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If your friend is talking about how they feel hopeless or lost and they "just want to end it all," you could respond with something as simple as, "When you talk like that, it worries me." Or, "It's really hard to hear that you're feeling this way. What can I do to help?"
That can reassure your friend that she's not alone and open up a valuable conversation about what she truly needs — but Larson cautions against becoming your friend's only support system. Instead, she suggests helping your friend get help by researching therapists together, calling a suicide hotline together, or, as a team, bringing the issue to a trusted authority figure (e.g. a parent) who can take it from there.
"You might help them bridge that gap [to get the services they need], but you are not the provider of those services," Larson says.
But there are also some high-risk indicators that mean you need to take serious action ASAP: "If they’re using the word 'suicide' or saying they want to 'kill themselves,' that’s powerful," Larson says. "You jump on that." In those cases, she says you either call 911 or take your friend to the ER. At that point, "it doesn’t matter if you have been feeling unsure [about what to do]," she explains. "The people on the other end of the phone know what to do."
Once the crisis has passed, though, Larson says it's just as important to follow up with your friend. If she tries to brush off what happened, stay connected and interested. Other than that, Larson says it's important to be sympathetic, patient, and nonjudgmental. But, again, you shouldn't hesitate to help your friend find professional support because, as Larson says, these feelings can be a lot to handle.
Still, don't underestimate the power of simply being there: "Allowing somebody to have those feelings and unload," Larson says, "that feeling that they’re not holding it all themselves is big."
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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