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How to support loved ones experiencing suicidal thoughts

Health & Science
 46 per cent of people who die by suicide have a known mental health condition. [iStockphoto]

It is disturbing to wake up on a fine morning and receive the news that the life of a loved one has been cut short by suicide.

This is a shocking issue that has existed and continues to happen in our society. It affects people of all ages but is a leading cause of death for poeple in ther 10-14 years and 20-34 years age brackets. Death by suicide is ranked as the fourth leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds around the world. Every year, globally, 730,000 people die by suicide.

According to the Centres for Disease Control, suicide increased by approximately 36 per cent between 2000-2021.

The World Health Organization defines suicide as death caused by injuring one’s life with the intent to die. Research has found that 46 per cent of people who die by suicide have a known mental health condition

Even as we acknowledge that suicide is a mental health issue, we often forget that we can play a role in averting these deaths. No matter how little our effort may look, learning to identify suicide warning signs and knowing how to help someone reach out for help and professional treatment can go a long way in reversing the person’s suicidal thoughts.

Warning signs

“Suicide warning signs range from talking about suicide for example making statements such as, ‘I  wish I were dead’, or ‘I want to die’, or ‘nothing matters anymore’. It can even go as far as getting the means to end their own life such as stocking pills or even acquiring a firearm,” Mary Kiragu, a psychologist, explains.

“Giving away his/her prized possessions such as an expensive phone a car or anything they value is another sign, as well as withdrawing from social situations and always wanting to be left alone,” she says.

Dr Tom Onyango, an Educational Psychologist and Psychological Counselor says the risks of suicide are increased by psychosocial factors.

“Hopelessness, loss of pleasure in life, depression, anxiousness, agitation, rigid thinking, rumination, thought suppression and poor coping skills are some of these factors. A poor ability to solve problems, the loss of abilities one used to have, and poor impulse control also play a role,” Dr Onyango says.

“In older adults, the perception of being a burden to others is a factor. Those who have never married are also at greater risk. Recent life stresses, such as a loss of a family member or friend or the loss of a job. Certain personality factors (especially high levels of neuroticism and introvertedness), have been associated with suicide, “ he says.

Ms Kiragu says that matters regarding suicide and suicidal ideation, have always been treated with a lot of criticism and stigma. “Even to a point of being termed as a criminal offence in our country. It’s high time people realised that no one just wakes up one day and decides, ‘today I am going to end my life for no reason at all,’” she says.


Ms Kiragu says the best way to support a loved one who threatens to take their own life or confesses that they have been having suicidal thoughts is to listen to them non-judgementally and create a safe space for them to express their feelings freely without any interruption or criticism.

“Remember you don’t need to find an answer to their problems or even completely understand why they feel the way they do. But just listening to what they have to say will at least let them know you care,” explains Ms Kiragu.

Take them seriously

“Many are the times people with suicidal ideation are mistaken for ‘seeking attention’. Instead of taunting them and just brushing off whatever they may be telling you, it’s advisable to show them that you are keen on what they are telling you,” Ms Kiragu says.

Keep checking on them

According to CDC, being connected to a family and community support can decrease suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

“It’s our responsibility to stay connected with the people around us who have exposed suicidal thoughts and signs. This is because people with suicidal ideation often feel lonely. Even if it’s via a phone call or a text, it is very important. It absolutely shows that you are there for them and you care for them always,” Ms Kiragu says.

Talk boldly about suicide

“Asking the question directly, ‘Are you having thoughts about suicide?’ can play a role in supporting them. This might feel uncomfortable but a direct question encourages an honest answer. And talking about suicide will not make a person take their own life or put ideas in their head. On the contrary, it provides the opportunity for someone to say how they’re really feeling,” Ms Kiragu says.

Take them through self-care

“Encourage them to practice self-care like exercising, taking a healthy diet and having quality sleep, just to mention a few. If possible, offer to engage in these activities together with them for or moral support. Encourage them to focus on getting through the day rather than focusing on the future – help them to be mindful of the present moment since thinking a lot about the past and future events can really create a lot of anxiety for them, thus propelling the thoughts of attempting suicide,” Ms Kiragu says.

Tell them they are not alone

Dr Onyango says that communicating to a person who has suicidal thoughts that they are not alone goes a long way.

“Let them know that you care about them and that they are not alone, empathise with them. Be aware you don’t know exactly how they feel. You could say something like, ‘I cannot imagine how painful this is for you, but I would like to try to understand’, Dr Onyango says.

“Ask about their reasons for living and dying and listen to their answers. Try to explore their reasons for living in more detail, focus on people they care about, and who care about them. And who they might hurt by leaving them behind, “ Dr Onyango adds up.

Encourage them to seek help

“Let them seek the help that they are comfortable with such as help from a doctor or counselor or support through a charity,” Dr Onyango says. “Follow up any commitments that you agree to and make sure someone is with them if they are in immediate danger,” Dr Onyango advises.

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