Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. LGBTQ+ youth also seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate that heterosexual youth do. According to a paper from Rutgers University, knowing the warning signs and what to say could save lives. But... knowing what to say to a loved one who seems to be struggling is sometimes difficult.
Being at a loss for words during a friend's tough times can make you feel like a jerk, but it shouldn't. It's incredibly common, and often comes from a good place — you just want to be sure you don't cause any harm. So, in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day, we asked experts for some help figuring out exactly how to approach someone who is going through a hard time.
First, ask yourself how this person would want to receive comfort, suggests Nina Tirado, a therapist at NYC Counseling. That might be different from how you prefer to give comfort, she notes. For example, if you're a touchy-feely person your instinct may be to go for the hug. That wouldn't help someone who's a little more reserved. Also smart: Consider your relationship to the person. It wouldn't always necessarily be appropriate to embrace a coworker, either.
When you're trying to figure out what to say, "It's important to lead with kindness, humanity, and tenderness," Tirado says. Some phrases Tirado offers include, "I'm with you"; "I'm right here"; "I can't imagine how hard this feels for you"; and "We'll sit through these waves together".
Sense a theme? Beyond words, what really matters is your presence. "One of the kindest ways to aid someone when they are sad is to be with them," Tirado explains. "Your presence goes a long way. It prevents someone from being alone when they are in a dark place and offers them an outlet to release their emotions."
If you've ever had the experience of feeling lonely during a dark time, you likely agree with that statement. "The last time my depression was really bad, my best friend asked me to hang out," one Reddit user writes. "We ended up spending the evening on a paddle boat, just he and I, drinking beer and paddling around this little lake, me intermittently crying and generally feeling like a real horse's ass. But he was there. He knew I was struggling, and although he couldn't really empathize, he knew I needed to simply not be alone."
And while what you say matters less than the act of being there to say it, it's a good idea to stay away from negative phrases along the lines of, "I know exactly how you feel" or "You're being dramatic", Tirado says. These statements may make your friend feel dismissed rather than heard.
If your friend starts talking about feeling empty or hopeless, having no reason to live, or death, it's a good idea to get help as soon as possible, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. "Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s (1-800-273-TALK (8255)) and the Crisis Text Line’s number (741741) in your phone, so it’s there when you need it," their website reads. You can urge your loved one to use the hotline, but you can also use it yourself to learn more about how to act and what resources are in your area. They also say you can help them make a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
Taking on a friend's emotional baggage can have a toll on your own personal mental health too. So make sure to keep tabs on where your own headspace is at. If you need to, take a break from offering support to find your own. You can't be there for a friend when you're struggling, after all.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.