Common reactions after someone attempts suicide
Discovering that someone you care about has tried to end their life can be a devastating experience. You may initially experience emotions such as shock and denial. Sometimes those close to the suicidal person blame themselves for what has happened, thinking, for example, "if only I'd watched them more closely". The fact that someone close to you or a loved one has attempted suicide is not your fault.
Other common feelings and reactions to the suicide attempt of a loved one include:
- Anger: How could they do this to us?
- Shame: I have to keep this secret.
- Guilt: Didn't I love/watch/listen to them enough?
- Fear: Will they try again?
- Avoidance: If we pretend this didn't happen, it will go away.
- Minimisation: They are just trying to get attention.
- Cutting off: This is not my problem someone else can deal with it.
Unhelpful reactions to a suicide attempt
It is important for you to be aware of your own feelings, and avoid reacting in ways that could block communication or cause your loved one to react angrily or withdraw. Unhelpful responses include:
- Panicking: "This can't be happening. I don't know what do we do?"
- Name-calling: "You're a real psycho."
- Criticising: "That was such a stupid thing to do."
- Preaching or lecturing: "You know you shouldn't have done that; you should've asked for help."
- Ignoring: "If I just pretend this didn't happen, it'll go away."
- Abandoning the person: "I can't take this, I have to leave."
- Punishing the person: "I'm not talking to them until they straighten themselves out."
- Dramatising: "This is the worst possible thing you could have done!"
- Simplifying things or using a 'quick-fix' approach: "You just need some medication, and then you'll feel yourself again."
- Being angry or offended: "I can't believe you'd try that!"
- Making the person feel guilty or selfish: "How did you think this would make me feel?"
What to say to someone who has attempted suicide
Often people report that they find it difficult to support someone who has attempted suicide because they feel they don't know what to say. It can be hard to find the right words when you're feeling overwhelmed and emotional yourself. Create a safe space, where the person feels loved, cared about, accepted, supported and understood. Letting the person know you support them, and asking open-ended questions, can help to open the lines of communication.
The following suggestions may serve as prompts:
- I'm sorry you've been feeling so awful. I'm so glad you're still here.
- I'm here for you. Remember that you can always talk to me if you need to.
- I want to help you. Tell me what I can do to support you.
How to support someone who has attempted suicide
- Be available and let the person know you will listen. It is vital to create a 'safe space' for the person to talk, this helps to build or re-establish trust between you and the person you are concerned about.
- Try to understand the feelings and perspective of the person before exploring solutions together.
- It may be advisable to remove possible means to suicide, including drugs and alcohol, to keep the person safe.
- Support the person in exploring and developing realistic plans and solutions to deal with their emotional pain. In order to let go of suicide as a solution, they will need to see real changes in their life. It is usually a case of making small steps in the beginning, as the person's difficulties haven't been created overnight.
- It is important for the suicidal person to assume as much responsibility as possible for their own welfare as they are capable of at that time. This might be difficult for you to consider, as you might not feel able to trust your loved one at the moment.
- Enlist the help of others and make sure you get family and friends to assist you to support the person.
- Remember that you do not have to fill the role of counsellor, psychiatrist or doctor yourself. Encourage your loved one to utilise the professional supports available to them.
- Consider assisting the person to write a safety plan that will detail the steps they need to take to keep themselves safe if they feel suicidal. Having a concrete plan in place may help both of you feel more prepared and in control about the possibility of future suicidal thoughts.
Telling other people about the suicide attempt
Unfortunately, there is still a degree of stigma surrounding suicide. This may make it difficult to talk about your loved one's suicide attempt, as you may fear that you or they will be judged or criticised.
It is important to remember that it is up to you who you choose to tell about the situation, and how much you reveal to them. You may find it helpful to prepare something to say when asked about the suicide attempt, such as a simple: 'yes, it's a difficult time for us, but we're getting him/her the support he/she needs.' Speaking to people who have also been in similar situations, such as through a carers support group, may offer you a source of non-judgemental support and understanding.
Looking after yourself
Supporting someone who has attempted suicide can be emotionally draining, stressful and exhausting. It is impossible to watch over someone 24/7. It is vital that you look after yourself and get the support you need.
This is not something you need to deal with alone. Ensure you have adequate support systems in place yourself. Identify trusted family members or friends that you can talk to, or join a local support group. If you are finding it difficult to deal with the strain of the situation, you may also wish to consider counselling or other professional support for yourself.