Supporting a suicidal family member

When a loved one has either threatened or attempted suicide, family members often don’t know what to do or how to act. They may be living in fear, not knowing what to expect next, or how to help. Some may tip-toe around the person or become emotionally disconnected themselves. Or they may cave into unreasonable demands, such as agreeing to no curfew for a troubled teenager who has threatened suicide, for fear that setting or reinforcing limits may trigger an actual attempt.

Suicide is complex, and there usually is no single reason why a person attempts or completes suicide. Parents who struggle with the suicide of a child often want to know what caused this to happen. But often we just don’t know.  

Researchers – in trying to better understand why people attempt suicide – have asked survivors this question: “What was your motivation? What were you hoping would happen?” Generally these suicide attempt survivors said they were trying to send a message, to communicate their feelings of unbearable pain. In most cases, they didn’t want to die.
As a licensed social worker at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s department of psychiatry and behavioral health, I counsel suicidal patients ranging in age from 16 to early 70s, along with their families. I try to help them cope with feelings of secrecy, shame, helplessness, guilt and loss of control.
Family Burden
The impact of living with a suicidal family member is poorly understood, but definitely has a major impact on the rest of the family.  Some family members may develop increased hypervigilance to try to ensure that their loved one remains safe. They may start to think, “If I don’t stay on top of this all the time, she might kill herself.” This can cause an enormous amount of stress for family members, especially those who may be receiving less attention than usual.
Emotional Disconnect

This hypervigilance, which may manifest as a parent constantly checking up on their child to make sure he isn’t harming himself can also lead to feelings of disconnectedness with the child. The parent is so worried, but after seeing everything is OK, often will retreat to another room in the house, rather than spending some time with the teenager and connecting in a meaningful way.  Parents or spouses may feel excessive responsibility or blame themselves for what is happening with their loved one.

Family Coping 

Some families may not realize that resources exist to help cope with a family member at risk for suicide.  Other families realize that talking about what is happening with their loved one can be helpful, and the entire family may benefit from counseling. Often, families feel a sense of relief by working together to fill out a safety plan for their loved one that spells out warning signs of worsening mood problems, identifying stressors that can contribute to worsening mood and identifying specific people they can reach out to for support if they are feeling like they may try to harm or kill themselves. 

Warning Signs
Be aware of specific warning signs that indicate someone may be contemplating a suicide attempt. For example, if the person suddenly becomes calm or cheerful after a bout of depression or talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live. Another warning sign could be a person talking about wanting to die, or looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun.
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, other behaviors may also indicate a serious risk—especially if the behavior is new or has increased or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. These may include the person talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain or feeling like being a burden to others. The person may be increasing the use of alcohol or drugs or behaving recklessly or feeling isolated and withdrawn. Changes in sleeping patterns – too much or too little – or displaying extreme mood swings can also be warning signs.
What to Do
If there is a risk of suicide or violence, call 911. Some mental and behavioral health conditions can contribute to the risk of suicide and to acts of violence. If you or another individual have suicidal thoughts or thoughts about harming yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately and ask for help to resolve the crisis situation. Once the crisis is averted, the specialists at Ohio State Behavioral Health can help to diagnose and treat any underlying mental or behavioral health conditions.

Other resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline,  a 24-hour toll-free phone line for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Help is available by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to 741741 or text STEVE to 741741 for additional resources that youth of color can utilize when texting the Crisis Text Line.



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