Years ago, a close friend was extremely depressed and contemplating suicide. An experience we shared during his darkest time taught me a lesson about friendship.
“You may have saved my life.”
The gravity of his words stunned me. While we were having one of our weekly lunches together, my friend paused, looked me square in the eyes and spoke those words. They were some of the most powerful things anyone had ever said to me.
His statement was made in the context of our discussion about his current well-being. My friend and former coworker was proud to tell me how, for the first time in many years, he felt what it must be like to be “normal.”
He attributed his current state to finally getting his medications right and years of group therapy—which helped him rise from the darkest depths of depression. He had come to a place in life where he finally felt happy.
His positive trajectory had helped him get his diet and health under control and had opened up his mind and heart to pursue the things he’d always wanted to do.
However, it was a long road that led him to that state.
When I almost lost my friend
When he said, “You may have saved my life,” he was referring to something that occurred several years ago.
We worked together as partners in a business that had a tough time during the economic downturn of 2008. Most of our bread-and-butter computer service contracts were with manufacturers and retailers that had been hit hard. As a result, so were we.
By that time, I had learned that my friend suffered from depression and was at a very low place in his struggle. From time to time, he would confide in me that he contemplated ending his life to escape the debilitating pain and darkness he felt on a daily basis.
One day, after returning from a short snorkeling vacation, he confessed that he would sit on the beach in the evenings and seriously consider walking out into the waves … and not coming back.
To hear this from my friend was gut-wrenching, and I took him seriously and tried to be there to support him. I had learned long before then that even if it seems as if someone is joking or “just saying it,” when a person expresses a desire to “end it all,” it should be considered a plea for help. But I was relieved that he was still here, alive and telling me about those thoughts.
That temporary relief turned to anguish sometime later when he didn’t show up for work—for two straight days—with no contact or warning. He didn’t answer his phone.
I knew he was close to his sister, and I was able to find a number to call her. But I discovered that she and his other local family members hadn’t heard from him. Frantically, his sister tried to reach him by phone and even contacted his apartment complex to ask them to enter his home and check on him.
I was filled with dread as my worst fears seemed to be coming true.
Later that day, his sister called me to let me know that he had finally returned her call. He was okay physically.
Relief, anger, joy and frustration collided within me when he finally called to apologize for what he had put me and his family through.
As I listened and caught my breath through my tears, my own raw emotions eventually spilled out, and I let him know the intense anguish and fear I had felt when I thought that I had lost him. I think he understood, through my anguish and honest emotion, how important his life was to me and all of his loved ones.
Proverbs 27:6 tells us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Looking back, that scripture has a deeper meaning to me now.
I don’t think this event alone was the reason my friend told me, “You may have saved my life.” I believe he was referring to our years of friendship throughout his battle with depression. He had trusted me with his struggle long before this event, and he knew I would always listen with full attention, ask direct questions to understand more, and inquire about how he was getting help.
A brother is born for adversity
One of the most essential things you can do if you have a friend who is struggling with these issues is found in Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
In other words, be there. And part of being there is learning as much as you can about the struggle.
There are many good resources that can help provide valuable knowledge and assistance in dealing with a friend or loved one who may be suicidal. Many of these resources can be found online or through a health care provider.
They can provide invaluable information that can help you identify the potential signs of a suicidal person and offer ways to help them. (See the accompanying sidebars for more information.)
People who are suicidal can appear to push people away or withdraw from those they love. For them, life hurts. People who are suicidal can appear to push people away or withdraw from those they love. For them, life hurts. They stop enjoying things, and they can be hard to reach. It is not easy to approach and talk to someone suffering from this level of depression.
However, it is important to do so in spite of the discomfort. Being a good listener may be the best thing you can do. Let them know that you are concerned—that you want to help and listen to them.
Many people try to reach out and get help before attempting suicide. Studies have shown that over 50 percent of suicide victims sought medical help in the six months prior to their deaths. Most suicidal individuals exhibit warning signs or signals of their intentions. A close, true friend or confidant can be a lifesaving resource for such an individual.
And experts say you don’t give someone suicidal ideas by talking about suicide with them. Rather, talking openly and honestly with them about their suicidal thoughts and feelings can help save a life.
Being there for them during their darkest times can help the most. They need a friend like the one described in Proverbs 18:24: “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Jesus Christ elaborated on what this kind of friend looks like: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
There are many ways we can lay down our lives for friends—including giving them our concern, attention and focus during their times of anguish.
Make the effort to be there when they need you.
We may not always be able to prevent someone from harming himself or herself, and sometimes people give no indication that they are at the point of suicide.
However, often there is an opening to help. When you have a friend dealing with extreme depression and suicidal thoughts, just remember, this is the time he or she needs you the most.
You may just save your friend’s life.
How to Communicate With Someone Who May Be Suicidal
Here are six suggestions for how to talk to friends who are potentially suicidal:
Asking the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?” communicates that you are open to dialogue. Try to be direct, nonjudgmental and supportive. Give them the opportunity to tell you about the pain they are experiencing. You can ask, “How do you hurt?” and “How can I help?” However, it’s essential to never promise to keep it a secret.
Take them and their answers seriously and do not ignore them, especially if they indicate they are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Listen to their reasons as well as for any potential reasons they want to remain alive—both are important when they are telling you what’s going on. Don’t impose your reasons for them to live, rather, help them focus on their reasons for living.
- Keep them safe.
Once you’ve opened a dialogue and determined suicide is indeed on their mind, it is important to find out a few things to try to keep them safe. Have they already done something to try to kill themselves before talking with you? Do they know how they would kill themselves? Do they have a plan, timing or access to do what they have planned? Answers to these questions can reveal a lot about the imminence and severity of the danger they are in. Keeping them safe is really about putting time and distance between them and their chosen method of suicide. Help and guidance from organizations like those below can be very helpful.
- Be there.
Being there for those who have thoughts of suicide can be lifesaving. Limiting their isolation and increasing their connection to others can be a protective factor against suicide. Being physically present, or speaking with them over the phone or keeping in regular contact through text messaging (if you can’t be with them), can help them not feel alone or as if they’re a burden.
- Help them connect.
Helping those with thoughts of suicide connect with ongoing support resources can help them establish a safety net for moments they find themselves in crisis. Explore some of these possible supports with them. Have they seen, are they currently seeing or is there an option for them to see a mental health professional? Organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline have shown that individuals who use these resources are significantly more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed and more hopeful.
- Follow up.
Make sure to follow up with those experiencing thoughts of suicide after you have helped them with the steps above. Be interested in how they are doing. Give them a call, send a text or leave a message. This contact can continue to increase their feelings of connectedness by showing your ongoing support. Even the simplest form of reaching out can potentially reduce their risk of suicide.
Suicide Prevention Resources
In the U.S.: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Crisis Text Line, access by texting HOME or TALK to 741741, crisistextline.org.
In the U.K.: Samaritans, 116 123.
In other countries: suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.
What Are Some Signs of Major Depression?
Depression is a major problem in the Western world. Millions of people suffer from depression in its various forms. According to the Harvard Medical School, the most common forms of depression are called major depression and persistent depressive disorder (or dysthymia).
With major (or severe) depression, a person becomes consumed with depressed thoughts and loses interest in all activities that he or she normally would find pleasurable. Those suffering from major depression have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and often are those at greatest risk for suicidal thoughts.
With persistent depressive disorder, a person experiences depressive thoughts for a period of time (up to two years), but not to the level of those who suffer from major depression. People with this disorder can still function normally, but have a constant feeling of joylessness and hopelessness.
Sometimes it’s clear when someone is suffering from one of the above forms of depression. But sometimes the signs aren’t as obvious. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the following are some signs someone is struggling with depression:
- Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
- Irritability and angry outbursts, even over seemingly small issues.
- Loss of interest in activities and hobbies that would normally be pleasurable.
- Abnormal sleep patterns (which can range from insomnia to sleeping more than normal).
- Persistent lack of energy.
- Abnormal eating habits (ranging from appetite loss to persistent overeating).
- Troubles with concentrating, thinking, making decisions and remembering things.
If you have a friend or family member who is showing these signs, it is important to maintain regular contact with him or her and to try to better understand what he or she is feeling.
People with depression often feel guilty or ashamed of their feelings, so approaching them with a gentle, nonjudgmental approach is important.