What to Do If You or Someone You Know Is Having Suicidal Thoughts

I was serving in youth ministry with a new church plant when the pastor updated me on a mom in distress who’d recently been attending the church. She was hurt, stuck and confused because her teenage son, who would often shut himself away in his room, was having recurring suicidal thoughts. But now they’d found a gun in his room. His father was reactive, upset struggled to control his emotions. His mom was hysterical, not knowing what more she could do as her son increasingly isolated himself. And there I was, charged with the mission of talking to this family, ideally to bring some hope and reconciliation to their crisis.

My mind began to race as I pondered how to approach it.

I had a sudden sinking feeling of inadequacy, aware of my lack of tools and skills to navigate the situation. This was long before I’d gone back to school for Clinical Psychology or had received more training. But this was to be the first of many light bulb moments I would have on mental health and the church.

Sure, I could pray with them. I’d be a supportive ear as I sat with them on their living room couch in the following few days. Of course, I’d encourage them to consider more help and, in the meantime, we’d open up the Scriptures to see what hope and comfort was to be found. But if I were to be 100% honest, I was just winging it. Even though I, myself, had experienced traumas accompanied with suicidal thinking as a teenager, my experience still didn’t make up for more practical competency. And I’m confident there are youth leaders, pastors and laymen around the world who have been put in similar situations.

I know this because research for over 20 years has shown that people will go to their pastor or spiritual leader in a moment of crisis before ever seeking professional help. The church is on the front lines of the mental health crisis.

But maybe you’re reading this and you’re the one who’s struggling with suicidal thinking. No matter how much you will them away, these intrusive thoughts continue to bombard you. Or maybe you feel stuck in your pain and have convinced yourself that this is all life will ever be: pain upon pain. The truth is, most people who consider suicide don’t necessarily want to die—they just want the pain to stop, or they feel of no use to those around them. 

Whether it is you or someone you know struggling with suicidal thinking, I want you to know that suicide is preventable. With the right dynamics in place, it can get better, relief is available, and recovery is possible. Here are some practical steps on what to do if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thinking.

Promise to give yourself time. Make a promise to yourself that you’re not going to make any decisions in this moment. Give yourself some time to de-escalate, because chances are this heightened state of emotions and racing thoughts will pass. Remember, suicide is a permanent response to a temporary emotion. I don’t say that to minimize the battle, because I know that for many who have considered it, it has been a recurring struggle.

Nevertheless, despite what your feelings may be telling you, the pain you’re experiencing will not be all there is to your life. Don’t let your thoughts confuse this chapter with the whole book. You have a future on the other side of this. 

It’s also important to understand that recovery is a process. One day it may feel like you’re on track. The next day you may feel like a total war zone inside. This can make it feel like things will never get better or you’ve hit the same wall that you can’t get past. But that’s not how recovery works (in anything). The road to recovery is lined with both setbacks and victories, but overall we progress. One step at a time, one realization at a time, one prayer at a time, one verse at a time, one session at a time, one breakdown and bounce-back at a time, we progress. So keep going.  

Hold onto 1 Peter 5:10—“So after you have suffered a little while, [God] will restore, support, and strengthen you, and will place you on a firm foundation.”

Call a 24-hour suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is one of the most valuable resources to have on hand in the middle of a crisis. You’ll be able to speak with a trained professional anytime to de-escalate intense emotions when it may feel like there’s no one you can talk to. They can help talk to you about mental health services in your area. You can also text 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. to text with a trained crisis counselor. 

Consider seeing a therapist/mental health professional who can help bring some relief and walk you through recovery. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that more than half of people (54%) who died by suicide had an unknown mental health condition. In short, suffering from a mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc., are major risk factors. The longer it goes unaddressed, the worse things can get; without a diagnosis, you’ll likely experience confusion and frustration about why your dark times feel so intense. Some of these depressive states may stem from biological issues in the brain or certain hormones that can only be properly assessed by a medical professional. The point is, the more we understand what’s going on, the better we can come up with a recovery plan.

Here is a list of the different types of mental health professionals, from therapists to psychiatrists, and the type of services they provide for your specific needs. One of the most common ways to begin your search for immediate help is through your local hospital and/or insurance provider to refer you to mental health services that are under your coverage. 

If you or your loved one is a college student, try to access the clinician that many colleges have on staff who can provide counseling services to students. In the U.S., check out HealthCare.gov to see if you or your loved one qualifies for free or low-cost insurance that covers mental health services. This can be an intimidating step for a lot of people—consider offering to go with them.

Here’s my full list of resources for where to begin and how to find help.

Talk about it. The worst part about suicidal thinking is the isolation.

For yourself: As someone who has rumbled out of this place and seen the other side, I believe that the best thing you can do for yourself is to invite those who love you into your struggle. I know how shameful that can feel, but letting others in is your key out. You may feel complete resistance at first. However, opening up to someone who can support you is the first step to letting the light into your life again. Sometimes support groups like NAMI or Celebrate Recovery at church can help bring some shared relief. (Read “When Your Friends and Family Don’t Get Your Battle…”)

Have a safety plan in place. I like to refer to these more as Action Plans, but they are preventative plans you have in place for the next time you feel suicidal. Whether it be setting up a therapy appointment when you feel your mental state starting to decline; having two or three people you’ve agreed to turn to for prayer and support; doing an activity you enjoy in order to redirect your attention; giving a roommate, parent or spouse control over your medication intake for accountability—these are all measures you take in advance to prevent yourself from making rash decisions in case of an emotionally intense episode. Start thinking about what those could be for you or collaborate with your loved ones about what a good safety plan might look like for them and how you can help them be preventative.

For your loved one: Don’t be afraid to ask them about the thoughts they’re having. You might fear that talking about it will trigger them, but it’s much worse to leave them sitting alone with these thoughts. You may not have an answer to their pain, but being a supportive and non-judgmental presence who shows genuine empathy and says, “I’m here with you,” makes a big difference. The sad thing about suicide is that the signs are always there, but the people around them often don’t perceive them for one reason or another. Be the one who sees them. (Read “9 Ways to Love Someone Through Depression That Actually Help.”)

Scripture says that Jesus has come to give life and life abundantly (John 10:10). But it’s hard to access that life when our reality feels more overwhelming than our faith. And the tough part is that suffering is an inevitable part of life. We see it woven through the stories of those people God used in mighty ways in the Bible, from King David to Elijah—even Jesus himself—all struggled with bouts of depression.

No one is immune from the deepest despair, and you are certainly not the only one who has gone through it. 

And there is a but God in all of this. Though the hard truth is that the only way out of our suffering is through it, we don’t have to go through that suffering alone. God gives us people to journey with and gives others’ wisdom to help us navigate the trials and overcome them. Romans 8:18 says that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

So hold on, because your time is not up and God’s plan for you and your loved one is still in effect.

Brittney Moses is a Los Angeles-based writer, advocate and psychology graduate of UCLA encouraging the integration of faith, holistic mental health, and wellness. Brittney holds to a faith-informed approach to mental health that is deeply steeped in personal experience and compassion for those she serves. From serving in churches over the past decade, founding an international youth non-profit ministry, and as a NAMI-certified support group facilitator, Brittney has encountered a wide variety of mental health crises over the years. She aspires to encourage those who are quietly wrestling in the shadows by bringing mental health issues into the light and making them accessible and relatable aspects of the national conversation.

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