Dear Other Dad — My Friend is Suicidal

Dear Other Dad —

My friend is suicidal and I’m trying to be there for him. I’m up till 4 or 5 in the morning every day talking to him to make sure he’s good. But it’s killing me. I can’t keep up with work or school. But he’s one of my closest friends and I can’t lose him.

— Exhausted

This is an incredibly stressful situation to be in and simply talking about it with others is a good start, because you need a release value for the pressure that is building up inside you. Your friend is lucky to have your care and concern; now you need to show yourself both those things.

You have probably done a lot of reading up on suicide by this point, but let’s be clear about some basic facts. Suicide is painfully common; 1 in 300 Americans a year seriously considers suicide and it is the second leading cause of death for teens and twentysomethings. Your friend’s suicidal ideation is at once completely personal, the feelings of a single individual, and a very widespread human impulse.

I am not an expert on the topic, so when I receive questions like this, I usually steer people toward resources from those who are. But because so many readers can relate to your situation, I have compiled some of the things I have learned from my own reading and from talking to friends who work in counseling; I hope I can add to your toolkit, but this column can’t be the last word.

The first thing you have to do is distinguish whether their ideation is active or passive, which requires different approaches. Active suicidal ideation is just what it sounds like: someone has a plan to end their life. Common signals (not seen every time) are giving away possessions, using language that suggests they will soon be gone, cancelling commitments, increased use of substances or engagement in harmful behaviors, gathering of items they could use to end life, having farewell conversations, and in some cases outright sharing what the plan is.

When these warning signals appear, the situation is acute. While you should be supportive to your friend, you need to seek help for them beyond yourself. Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great resource, not just for someone who is suicidal, but for anyone who is helping a distressed person in this situation. Call 1 800–273-TALK and tell them what your friend is doing or saying, and they can help you decide what to do next. Samaritans is another great resource and there are also likely to be local resources you could tap into as well.

You need to have your action plan ready. Beyond 9–1–1, you should have a sense of who else you can call in an emergency situation. Does your friend have other family members or a partner? Do you have access to your friend’s living quarters or do you know someone who does (and how to reach them) should a crisis arise?

If your friend does not seem to be in the active stage, they may be experiencing passive suicidal ideation, which is when one has suicidal thoughts and a desire to die but not a plan to do so. Often a manifestation of depression or a reaction to emotional trauma (whether new or sustained), this is a mental state in which thoughts of dying can paradoxically bring temporary comfort to the person, even while extending the depression or emotional duress.

The most valuable thing you can do for a friend passively contemplating suicide is to show that they are heard. Validate that they are in pain, without judgment. Most people do not actually want to kill themselves; they want the pain to end. Whatever anguish they are feeling seems constant, so death sounds like an out; but many also find relief in simply being able to voice this sentiment aloud. Just as you need a release valve for the pressure this situation has placed on you, your friend talking about suicide is a release valve for him. Your willingness to hear this without shaming or judging him may be all it takes to keep his suicidal ideation passive. Honestly, what might keep someone alive is impossible to predict; as one counselor told me “any excuse to not kill themselves might do.”

Resist the urge to tell your friend that other people have it worse or that they’ll get over it; the first half is true but useless for your suffering friend and the other half glosses over the real pain of the moment with a platitude. Reframe those concepts, letting your friend know that he is not alone in his pain and that you have his back while he deals with it.

Then, encourage your friend to seek help from a professional, preferably a trained therapist, or at least a trusted figure (a counselor they know from school or work, a religious leader, etc.). Too many people hear the word “therapy” and immediately resist because of unnecessary stigma around mental health, even though a therapist is just like any other kind of health care provider: they work to solve problems we can’t solve on our own.

If your friend has health insurance or other resources, that makes it easier of course, but if you call SAMHA, they can steer you toward free state resources. Some people feel better about this if they can find a therapist who is from their community or focuses on their peer group. There are resources to find therapists who are Black, Asian, Latine, and others representing many more communities (based on gender, sexuality, ability, and religion).

Since your friend has been open about his feelings, you can show your support by asking if he would like to make a suicide safety plan. Several sites online outline a list of elements to include. With this, you and your friend would basically come up with a contract that gives him tactics for when things start to feel acute and a trigger for alerting others. There are apps (Apple and Android alike) to make the plan easy to access.

No matter how you prepare, there are some things you need to consider: nothing prohibits passive ideation from becoming active and you cannot guarantee that there will be clear warnings of the shift. The hardest thing to accept about all of this is that you, ultimately, cannot keep your friend alive. Only he can do that.

You may contribute every helpful, positive ingredient that could encourage him to live and he still might take his life. Knowing that others love him and would miss him might well be motivational, but it may also not matter in a desperate moment where his pain feels too present. Your love improves his chances for success, but you alone will never determine the outcome.

So how do you live with that? This is where you need to practice serious self-care. If you don’t have a therapist or counselor yourself, find one. The weight of another person’s suicidal ideation is a heavy load — too much for you to comfortably carry, especially as a teenager. Being able to talk about your experience can help you get more clarity around it; the perspective of a third party can offer you distance that you’re not likely to have right now. And, should the worst happen, you will be armed with a listener who is already up to speed with what you’re going through.

You mention that tending your friend is affecting your life in other ways. You might want to talk to your employer or instructors to let them know the situation and to see if, at least for the moment, they may offer some flexibility around schedules or deadlines. The worst they can do is say no, in which case nothing changes; but they may also allow you some personal latitude that will help you keep up.

It is possible you will need to set some boundaries, too. Your love and support is clearly being expressed by your presence and openness, but the message is not amplified by sheer volume; you cannot monitor your friend until sunrise every single day for the rest of his life. You can choose to be on call (so to speak) if you wish, but you must also allow time for rest, whether it is actual sleep, downtime, or meditation. If something terrible happens when you are not present, that is not your fault — period.

To replenish your drained resources, make time for things you enjoy (hobbies, activities, the company of others). Think about the practices that make you feel most healthy — maybe you love a good walk, maybe it’s drinking a lot of water — and double down on those things, making a commitment to your physical health as a way to tend your mental health. There is no controlling your friend’s choices but you can control your own, which benefits you both.

Your friend is lucky to have you. No matter what happens next, he knows this. I hope you do too.

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