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One of your close friends has been struggling lately. When you messaged to see how they’re doing, they replied: “I can’t stand myself. I spend all day thinking about the mistakes I’ve made. The world would be better off without me. At least I wouldn’t feel so terrible anymore.”

No, they didn’t come right out and say, “I’m thinking about suicide.” Still, the underlying meaning of their words alarms you.

You care about your friend and want to offer reassurance, but you’ve never had thoughts of dying yourself, and you have no idea what to say.

First, know they might feel scared, too. Even people who have suicidal thoughts often fear those thoughts. People thinking of suicide don’t necessarily have a clear plan or specific timeline. They simply want a way to stop pain that seems unbearable and impossible to overcome.

It’s normal to feel helpless when a friend mentions suicide, however indirectly, but there’s a lot you can do to help. In fact, your compassion and support could make all the difference.

Suicidal thoughts aren’t uncommon.

In 2018, more than 10 million Americans had serious thoughts of suicide.

These thoughts often arise in response to stressful or challenging life situations, including physical or mental health issues, trauma, abuse, loneliness, and isolation.

Not everyone who has thoughts of suicide will make an attempt, but suicide remains the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10–34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It is a significant health crisis — and a preventable one.

The steps below can help you support your friend through a moment of crisis.

Take them at their word

It’s a common myth that people talk about suicide to get attention. This is not the case for most people, so it’s always best (and safest) to assume your friend means what they say.

Brushing off their mention of suicide invalidates their distress. They may feel reluctant to share their thoughts with anyone else or reach out for professional support.

Instead, they might continue carrying their pain in silence, believing things will never improve.

Pay attention to their language and behavior

People often talk about suicide in vague or unclear ways.

Your friend could say things that reflect a sense of shame, hopelessness, or failure. They may not say, “I want to die,” or “I want to kill myself.” Instead, they might say:

  • “I just want the pain to stop.”
  • “I don’t know if I can go on.”
  • “I’m a burden to everyone.”
  • “I’ll never feel better.”

Their mood and actions can also show some signs.

You might notice they:

  • avoid spending time with people
  • have frequent mood changes
  • sleep more or less than usual
  • drink or use drugs more than usual
  • take risks or behave more impulsively than usual
  • give away treasured or important belongings

These signs don’t always mean your friend is thinking about suicide, but it never hurts to have a conversation when their actions or language concern you.

Breaking the ice

You might say: “I feel a little worried about you because… (mention a few things you’ve noticed). How can I offer support?”

Ask them directly

You can get a better idea of your friend’s immediate risk by asking a few important questions.

  • First, confirm they really are thinking of suicide by asking, “Are you thinking about ending your life?”
  • If they say yes, ask, “Do you have a plan for how you’d do it?”
  • If they say yes, ask, “Do you already have the things you’d use?” Then ask what and where those items are.
  • Check whether they have a timeline in mind by asking, “Have you thought about when you’d end your life?”

Not everyone who thinks about dying has a plan or the means and intent to carry out their plan. Someone who says yes to all of these questions and has a clear timeframe for dying, however, needs immediate support (more on this in a moment).

Encourage them to talk about it

When someone you love mentions suicide, you might believe avoiding the subject entirely and encouraging them to think about brighter things will help them feel better.

It’s normal to feel scared or uncertain of the best response, but shying away from the subject won’t help.

Your friend might take your avoidance as a sign you aren’t comfortable talking about suicide. They might also get the message you don’t appreciate the depth of their pain, even when that’s not the case. In either case, they might stop confiding in you.

The idea that discussing suicide will make someone more likely to act on suicidal thoughts is just another myth. People who have the chance to open up about their thoughts and share their pain with an empathic listener often feel some relief from the most overwhelming feelings of distress.

Offer compassion

When talking to someone who’s having thoughts of suicide, what you say really matters.

You don’t want to deny their distress or ask things like, “How could you possibly feel that way?” or “Why would you want to die? You have so much to live for.”

Trying to solve problems for them usually won’t help, either — what might seem like a small fix to you can seem insurmountable to someone in a crisis.

To validate their feelings and offer hope at the same time, try:

  • “That sounds so painful, and I appreciate you sharing that with me. How can I help?”
  • “I know things seem bleak now, but it can be hard to see possible solutions when you feel so overwhelmed.”
  • “I’m concerned about you because I care, and I want to offer support however I can. You can talk to me.”

Continue to offer support

If your friend has thoughts of suicide but no plan or immediate risk, they may feel a little better after sharing their distress.

This doesn’t mean they’re completely fine. They may continue to deal with suicidal thoughts until they get help addressing the underlying concern.

Staying in touch with your friend can remind them you still care, even after the crisis has passed.

Check in on how they’re feeling by saying things like:

  • “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. How are you doing?”
  • “Remember, I’m always here if you feel like talking.”

Encourage professional support

You can also support them by encouraging them to talk to a therapist about lingering or recurring suicidal thoughts.

Just remember you can’t force them to go to therapy, no matter how deeply you believe it would help.

It can feel pretty upsetting to watch someone struggle alone, but telling them what to do may not work.

Encouragement without judgement
  • Instead of: “You need to get some help.”
  • Try: “Have you thought about talking to a therapist?” or “I’m always here to listen, but do you think a therapist could help a little more?”

These suggestions show your friend you care while gently reminding them of your limits. You probably can’t offer any real solutions to their distress, but therapists are trained to support and help people having thoughts of suicide.

If your friend seems reluctant, try offering to help them find a therapist or take them to their first appointment.

Someone with an immediate suicide risk may need more help than you can provide.

If your friend has a plan for suicide, access to what they’d need to carry it out, and a specific timeframe, you’ll want to support them by getting professional help right away.

If you believe your friend is at immediate risk of self-harm or suicide:
  • Encourage them to reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741741.
  • If needed, call 911 or your local emergency number. If possible, you may want to take them to an emergency room or encourage them to go.
  • Stay with them or on the phone until help arrives. If in person, remove any weapons or substances from their surroundings that could cause harm.

That said, the strategies below can help you offer support while you wait for professional help.

Try grounding exercises

Intense emotional turmoil can make it tough to see things from a rational viewpoint, and people overwhelmed by their pain often see situations as worse than they actually are.

This distorted perspective can contribute to suicidal thoughts and even make suicide seem like the only real option.

While grounding techniques may not work for everyone, they can sometimes help people in the grip of distress regain some clarity and refocus on what’s actually happening in the present.

These techniques often incorporate the five senses to help people reconnect to their physical environments.

Try these simple exercises together:

  • Get moving. Physical activity offers a good distraction since it requires you to focus on your motions. Try going for a walk with your friend or doing some simple exercises, like jumping jacks, together.
  • Grab a comfort item (or pet). If your friend has a favorite blanket, sweater, or soothing object, go find it together. Many people also find cuddling with a pet helps ease some distress.
  • Play the 5-4-3-2-1 game. Ask your friend to list 5 things they see, 4 things they hear, 3 things they smell, 2 things they can feel, and 1 thing they can taste.
  • Put on some music. While music can’t cure distress, listening to a favorite song can often help people relax.

Ask about their safety plan

Your friend may have created a safety plan with the help of a counselor if they’ve had thoughts of suicide before. These plans are simple and brief, and generally include things like:

  • warning signs of suicidal thoughts
  • coping techniques to get through crisis periods
  • a list of reasons to reconsider suicide
  • contact information for support people
  • steps to get to a safe place

If they don’t have a safety plan, they may not feel up to creating one while actively in distress. If they do want to try, your assistance can make the task a little easier.

Stay with them

Help your friend stay safe by sticking close or staying on the phone.

If they don’t feel up to talking, you can try walking, watching a distracting movie or TV show, or even simply sitting together.

Reassure them you’ll stay until someone else arrives, and help them connect with other friends or family members.

  • Instead of: “Can I call someone for you?”
  • Try: “Who can I call for you?”

Call emergency services right away if they:

  • resist the idea of getting help but still express an intent to die
  • tell you over the phone they have access to weapons or other means of ending their life

Involve others

There may come a time when you feel unable to continue supporting your friend.

You can only do so much to help on your own. If you begin feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or scared, it may be time to talk to other people in their life, like a parent or romantic partner.

Encourage them to connect with trusted friends, family members, healthcare providers, and others who can offer compassionate support.

Supporting a friend experiencing suicidal thoughts isn’t always easy. You can’t always provide the support they need, so it’s important to recognize when the crisis has passed the point where you can safely handle it alone.

There are several ways you can offer to help your friend:

When crisis lines don’t seem to help:

If you believe your friend is in real danger, don’t hesitate to call 911 or drive them to the emergency room. They may get upset in the moment, but your action can help them stay safe.

Thoughts of suicide, even if they seem vague, should always be taken seriously.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to helping a friend who’s thinking about suicide, but you can never go wrong by showing compassion and support.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.