When people we care about face deep pain and suffering, we often, in turn, experience a sense of helplessness. We often think that being a good friend means to offer really good advice and more: to fix the situation and take away the hurt. It’s painful to see someone we love hurt. Of course we’d want to take the pain away!
Paradoxically, what our loved ones need is not to be fixed – but rather, to be free to safely express themselves in their vulnerability. When we're in pain, we need to be seen and heard; offering a space for your loved ones to do that is not only what they need most, but it's also simpler than you attempting the impossible task of fixing whatever is distressing them.
If a friend comes to you in need, there are ways to support them in a safe and validating way. If the situation escalates, you can also assess risk.
How to be a safe, supportive friend
Pause your own emotional reactions while listening to your friend
Notice your own feelings around what the person is telling you, and keep them separate from your friend’s feelings. This will help you to remain present and listen to your friend.
Show your friend that you’ve heard them
Reflect back to your friend what you’ve heard with specific statements like: “I’m hearing you say that you feel really unsafe right now.”
Use a validating statement
On top of specific "I hear you" responses, validate what they've shared with you. Try responses like “that sounds really scary,” or “that sounds really painful.”
To validate means to show that something is real (as they’re experiencing it) and acceptable.
Share your own experiences, when appropriate
If you felt it was helpful to your friend to know that they are not alone, share an example from your life that's relevant. But keep it brief – just enough to show them that “together, we have a shared experience.”
While doing so can help to normalize their experience, sometimes it may leave the a person feeling unheard, so exercise your judgment.
Avoid invalidating statements (even well-intended ones)
Invalidating statements include responses like: “Don’t be silly, you’re amazing.”
This sounds like a compliment, but what your friend hears is that what they’re experiencing doesn’t matter because feeling this way is silly.
Instead, try a response like “I know what it’s like to feel (worthless), but I see you as (so strong and capable). Be careful not to go into your own story."
How to assess risk
When a friend shares that they're feeling suicidal, it can be very alarming. But remember: Sometimes people just need to talk about their feelings – and feelings are not to be mistaken with behaviors. You may need to do some gentle prodding to assess how much danger your friend is in.
REMEMBER: You are not a trained professional, nor are you expected to be!
Ask your friend if they're feeling immediately suicidal, or if it's more of a general issue
If a friend shares with you that they're feeling suicidal, gently ask some questions, like “Do you have a plan?” or “Is there something bothering you that you’d like to talk about?”
Have a plan of action, based on their response
Here are suggestions on what to do, based on what your friend says:
- “I have a plan” = call 911 or campus safety and report a mental health emergency. They will send a trained paramedic. Ideally you do this with your friend if they are willing. If they are unwilling, you find a quiet place and send the paramedic to the location of the person. If you don’t know their exact location, call anyway.
- “I have no plan and I don’t want to kill myself I just feel like it sometimes” = Engage the person in a conversation of what they need right now to be safe as well in the next couple of days. This might mean, “Why don’t you sleep over and tomorrow we can look for a therapist or go to urgent care?” or “I think it would be best for you to get some immediate help” =911/Urgent Care facility/Campus safety
Always trust your gut and know what you can handle! It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Be prepared for the aftermath of calling 911
If you ended up having to call 911, know that your interest to help and your willingness to take time to educate yourself make you a good friend. Here's what you might expect after reaching out for immediate assistance:
Your friend might resent you, or react negatively – and that's okay
Even if your friend can’t see this right now and is angry with you, you did the right thing. People have the right to feel angry, but they do not have the right to hurt.
Now is a good time to seek support for yourself, too
Make sure you have the support you need. Perhaps it would be helpful for you to be talking to a therapist to process this experience. Helpers need help, too.
You may try to follow up with your friend
If your friend allows, follow up with them. Ask them how they are doing and if it’d be helpful for them to talk some more. Make sure they got connected to a mental health professional and they secured what they needed in place.
The first try isn’t always successful. You can offer to support them in trying again, regardless of the scenario.
You may need to seek help more than once
If you need to call 911 or campus safety because a person is just that unsafe over and over again, then that is what you do.
For more information and support on this topic please refer to the Samaritans who are the experts on understanding suicide and suicide prevention.