Suicidal friend
September 4, 2012 1:57 PM   Subscribe

I am the only one who knows that my friend is suicidal. What do I do?

I'm basically his only friend, and I don't even live in the same province as him. We talk on gchat and through text. He's a great guy and we have bonded over similar experiences with depression, procrastination, etc., and he's been there to talk to during my hard and stressed out times.

But now he's severely depressed and I'm starting to feel overwhelmed with the looming possibility of him killing himself and me being the only one who knew how bad it was. I'm also out of ideas as to how to help him, and find myself growing frustrated and impatient with him when what he needs most right now is compassion and support. He's upset that I keep responding to his despair with 'it's your depression making you feel this way' but it is! He is convinced that his life is hopeless and worthless and that he will always be poor and lonely and depressed. Maybe what he needs is for me to just listen, but his thoughts are so dark and dismal that it's hard for me to just accept what he is saying without urging him to get help. He sometimes feels that seeking help is futile, but I feel like I can't be his sole support system anymore, I'm getting burnt out and terrified and I don't know what to do. I don't want to just cut him out, he's a good friend and he needs a good friend in return. I just can't take the barrage of suicidal ideation anymore. What can I do?
posted by whalebreath to Human Relations (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I should note that when I express my concerns to him, he says I shouldn't worry, that suicide is more a long term plan for him and not an immediate course of action. I am
also scared that he will seek help at my urging, and that Meds will
Give him the energy to carry through a suicide.
posted by whalebreath at 2:01 PM on September 4, 2012

Tell someone else. If he is suicidal, he needs help, beyond what you can give. You are a great friend for listening, and you will be a great friend for helping him get help. Tell his parents if he talks to them, his siblings, another close friend, his school. If you think he is imminently suicidal, call emergency services. And give the suicide hotline a call at 1-800-273-TALK (should work in Canada).

Take care of yourself, too. This is highly stressful and a lot to deal with. Do you have anyone to talk to?
posted by quadrilaterals at 2:02 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you call a suicide helpline? Just like there are Alcoholics Anonymous groups for friends and relatives of alcoholics, I'd bet that the people at a suicide hotline can help you help your friend.
posted by thebazilist at 2:02 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

that suicide is more a long term plan for him and not an immediate course of action

Pick. Up. The. Phone.

Call someone. Anyone. Family, neighbors, suicide hotlines ...

Heck, call the police in his local town. "Hi, my friend says he's thinking of suicide. Can someone from your dept do a welfare check on him?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:08 PM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

What thebazilist said. Don't get sucked into this vortex. Yes, you want to help, but you're just a person, and you can't make people do or not do anything. Call a hotline and talk to someone there about how best to support someone long distance, but stop making this your problem.

That part about meds giving him the energy to carry through a suicide. That's not even something that should be on your RADAR.

The next time you chat, you need to set a boundary, "Friend, I worry about you when you talk this way. I'm afraid that your depression is imparing your ability to think clearly and while you may not mean to hurt yourself, because you're unable to differentiate between legitimate thoughts and harmful ideation, you may hurt or kill yourself accidentally. Clearly, I'm out of my depths here. You need to get to a clinic NOW. Tell them you have thoughts of suicide, let them help you. If you aren't willing to do this, I'm afraid I have to back away from this situation because I'm not helping you, I"m hurting you."

You aren't responsible for your gchat friend. Your allowing him to wallow in these ideas only intensifies them. Get some advice from those at a hotline and extricate yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:09 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also, what Cool Papa Bell Said. I did this for someone based upon a very scary blog entry. He was super pissed off at me, but fuck it, he's still alive to hold a grudge.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:10 PM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Concrete Idea: You might contact a suicide hotline (at the number quadrilaterals gave above) and ask if they can help explain how you might make a safety plan with your friend. Basically, it'd be an action plan for who he'd contact if he did feel he was in immediate danger (might be his doctor, 911, you, the suicide hotline, etc.), in what order. He'd preferably write this down or print it out and keep it somewhere easily accessible (you could have a copy, too). It might at least make you feel better to think that there's an actual concrete safety plan in place so that neither of you is flailing about if there is a crisis.

If you are on his safety plan contact list, then you should also make sure that you have his physical contact information (real name, phone number, address) in case you need to call for help on his behalf. If he won't give you this info, you should not agree to be on his safety plan.

More generally: You can't give what you don't have. If you don't have the energy to listen to him at a certain point, it's ok to set a boundary at that point and ask if you can talk later. It's also important to remember that as much as you care about him, you cannot fix him and it's not your responsibility to force him to do anything. Gently reminding him about doctors, meds, hotlines, etc. is important, and I'm glad you're doing that, but there is only so much you can control. The more you try to control things that are not your responsibility, the more burnt-out and overwhelmed you'll get.
posted by jaguar at 2:11 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

We already have an agreement that he will tell me if he is in danger of seriously hurting himself, and he gave me his mom's info so that I would have it. But he doesn't get along with any of his family, he lives with them and doesn't talk to them. When I tell him I feel like its time to call someone he says I don have to, that he's not acutely suicidal.
posted by whalebreath at 2:17 PM on September 4, 2012

I just don't know how to respond to his increasingly distressed messages without forcing help on him, and without living in fear that I should have done something differently. I also hate that I'm feeling frustrated/fed up with him, like I've run out of anything helpful to say and now am just repeating 'get help' and becoming exasperated that he won't.
posted by whalebreath at 2:21 PM on September 4, 2012

In response to your update: Encourage him to move out. There can be brain chemistry reasons for depression but it can also be a legitimate reaction to terrible circumstances. Encourage him to change his situation.
posted by Michele in California at 2:23 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have his Mom's number, you need to call. You also need to disengage, as this is not healthy for you.

You're allowed to feel frustrated and fed up. You have someone who keeps telling you his scary problems, won't act on your advice and he keeps upping the ante. How do you enjoy being manipulated?

Again, use the number, call it, and then let whatever happens, happen.

Now. This seems very familiar. Either you will do what we've all been telling you, or you will continue to pop in with more random, scary stuff and continue to dither.

Shit, or get off the pot, but do SOMETHING.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:34 PM on September 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

The thing is, you want his buy-in to call someone for help.

If you're both deciding that you have to decide when it's severe enough to call for help, however, then... you get to do that whenever you decide it's severe enough to call for help. If he's putting all the responsibility on you, and you're taking it, then take it. Don't spend a lot of effort letting him talk you out of it.

If it helps, you could also research suicide assessment. In general, someone who has motivation (expressing the desire to kill themself), a concrete plan (e.g., "shoot myself in the head"), and the tools necessary to put that plan in place (e.g., owns a gun or has a concrete plan to get one) is at extremely high risk. In general, someone who has motivation but no concrete plan is at less risk. If you choose to take on the role of being your friend's mental health assessor, then having some concrete training (even if it's on your own) would probably benefit you.

Help Someone Else from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
posted by jaguar at 2:35 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just don't know how to respond to his increasingly distressed messages without forcing help on him, and without living in fear that I should have done something differently.

So respond now. God forbid that he does do anything to harm himself, that's when you're really going to regret all the things you should have done differently.

Also--that promise that he'll contact you if he's in serious danger? Might go right out the window in the face of an extraordinarily bad episode. I had a friend commit suicide recently. Another close friend of his, who I met after his death, said they had an agreement that he'd contact her if he was feeling suicidal. Didn't happen that night.

Please don't take chances with threats like this. Be thoughtful about who you contact; think whether he might respond differently to someone from a hotline vs a doctor vs his family, say. But please alert someone.
posted by ActionPopulated at 3:11 PM on September 4, 2012

You need to love him more than you love your friendship with him. Does that make sense? You could lose his friendship, but you gotta tell someone. Be strong for him, and tell someone. If he's living with his parents, they are the right ones to tell. Waiting until he is "acutely suicidal" is waiting far too long.
posted by Houstonian at 3:28 PM on September 4, 2012

Something else to consider... and it's not a pretty thought.

When I tell him I feel like its time to call someone he says I don't have to, that he's not acutely suicidal.

[W]hen I express my concerns to him, he says I shouldn't worry, that suicide is more a long term plan for him and not an immediate course of action

Hmmm.... I'm struck that he's suicidal enough to keep you concerned, but not so suicidal that you actually do something about. And he pooh-poohs seeking help, deeming it futile.

Another reason to involve professionals now is that your friend, consciously or unconsciously, may be using his depression and suicide ideation to keep you engaged, perhaps because it works really well. Of course suicide ideation should never be ignored, so involving professionals now is a good idea either way: to get him the help he needs or to get him to cut that shit out.
posted by carmicha at 3:32 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

We already have an agreement that he will tell me if he is in danger of seriously hurting himself

No. No, you don't. There is no such agreement. It doesn't exist. Get it out of your head.

What you DO have is an indication that the danger of him seriously hurting himself is something that is a real thing that is capable of happening at any time.

Analogy: There's a loaded gun sitting on a table. The 5-year-old sitting at the table promises, swears up and down, that he won't touch it. It's safe. Go ahead. Walk away. You can trust the 5-year-old and the loaded gun.

Or, maybe you just want to take the gun off the table, huh?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:32 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

You are not a mental health professional.

Repeat that to yourself and accept it for the truth it is.

Urge your friend to seek professional help and to move out of his family's home.

I agree part of this sounds like a reaction to his environment. Do not call his parents if you are truly worried at some point in the future. That just sounds like your friend trying to triangulate you into the drama with his family. Call the police in any emergency.

Frankly? By accident or on purpose, your friend is involving you in a way that fuels the drama and helps him avoid taking appropriate actions on his own behalf. In an unintentional way, you are making the problem very much worse by "being there" for your friend. This is a trap I urge you to extricate yourself from immediately.

His promises to contact you if things get "truly" suicidal puts most of the responsibility for his well being on to YOU. Meanwhile, you don't even live in the same town as him. How exactly is that supposed to work? Are you on-call for this person 24 hours a day??

I guessed it, didn't I? I'm sorry if I am right because you must feel awfully wrapped up in all of this by this point. You are in a tough spot.

Your kindest and wisest move is to consciously stop enabaling this situation. It is not serving you, it is not serving him. Stop being overtly involved, stop taking on roles in this situation you are not geographically or professionally suited to play.

- Every time chats or texts ramp up and become worrying, remind your friend to seek professional help.

Provide him with the contact info of places nearby in the beginning. After that, just remind him the resources are there. You can't force him to seek help or make appointments for him, but you CAN draw a boundary while directing him towards real help. Again, you are not a mental health professional, this is above your pay-grade as long distance friend.

- Call the police in friend's jurisdiction for a welfare check the next time the drama significantly ramps up. Full stop.

It's not your job to judge if it is bad enough to call! If you feel crazy worried by messages your friend is sending, call immediately for a welfare check. It's that simple.


Do you know this person IRL? Or just over the internets??

I ask because it sounds like you don't have the full picture of the situation, and possibly are being "used" for attention. I dunno. Just a flavor I get.

It is possible your friend isn't really who you think. It's a sense I get. Heads up.

If I were you, I'd walk away from this after friend refuses (the next time you seriously broach the subject) to take reasonable steps towards getting some kind of concrete professional help.

BTW, this: "I am also scared he will seek help at my urging, and that Meds will give him the energy to carry through a suicide," really sounds like an idea you got from him - not something you came up with on your own.

In short, you are in over your head here and you can not help this person, whatever the truth is. Make room in this guy's life for him to get real help by getting out of the way and putting up barriers between you and whatever he is going through.

(Is there maybe a romantic element here, as well?? Choosing someone many many miles away to "confide" in smacks of all kinds of wrong, but even moreso if this is some sort of an online romance.)


Be wary. Let professionals handle this. Do not make getting professionals involved your responsibility, but do promote the idea. Call the police in the meantime if something really crazy happens. Slowly back away.

Best to you.
posted by jbenben at 3:34 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Carmicha has hit the nail right on the head. Your friend is possibly a very real danger to himself, and he is also quite certainly a manipulative dipshit. Oh, imaginary girlfriend I communicate with via text message, I am so sad and lonely! Pay attention to me!

Next time he threatens suicide, call the cops where he lives. Encourage him to seek professional help, and disengage. I think you're being played, and you shouldn't feel responsible for anyone's well-being to the extent that you do right now.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:36 PM on September 4, 2012

I know him in real life. There's not a whole lot of "drama" and I don't think he's using me for attention. He is really isolated, unemployed, friendless (but lovable), and like, clinically depressed. He just seems almost delusionally depressed right now.
The other hard part is that I am about to start training to become a mental health professional, so this kind of hits home and makes me anxious that I'll fail at helping others who are depending on me, or that I should be able to deal with this better or something.
Thanks for all your answers so far <3
posted by whalebreath at 3:44 PM on September 4, 2012

(and I'll stop threadsitting now)
posted by whalebreath at 3:44 PM on September 4, 2012

The other hard part is that I am about to start training to become a mental health professional, so this kind of hits home and makes me anxious that I'll fail at helping others who are depending on me, or that I should be able to deal with this better or something.

There is a reason that therapists are prohibited from working professionally with friends, family members, and others with whom they have a pre-existing relationship. Being objective about someone you're involved with personally is much harder than being objective about someone you care about professionally.
posted by jaguar at 3:47 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

The other hard part is that I am about to start training to become a mental health professional, so this kind of hits home and makes me anxious that I'll fail at helping others who are depending on me, or that I should be able to deal with this better or something.

Even if you were a trained medical professional, you are not your friend's doctor. Stop acting like your friend's doctor.

And no one who is being manipulated thinks that they are being manipulated.

Sorry if this comes across as overly harsh, but it doesn't seem like you're absorbing the consensus of answers so far: disengage, encourage your friend to get professional help, and call the police the next time your friend threatens suicide.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:47 PM on September 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

As a formerly suicidal person, I beg you, please call his mother and stop doing what you're doing right now. You have done all you can. If his mother doesn't take the threat seriously, please call the police or a local suicide hotline. He is suicidal. Period. That does not switch on and off in the way he claims it does.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:49 PM on September 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, if you were a professional therapist, you would know that you are usually required to call in outside help for an actively suicidal patient. Even licensed and experienced therapists rely on the police or mental health centers or hospitals to keep actively suicidal patients safe; a therapist whose ego insists on handling such a patient on their own is a bad therapist.
posted by jaguar at 3:51 PM on September 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

The fact that you're a future mental health professional just makes you more vulnerable to becoming over engaged by his situation at best and manipulated at worst. Protect yourself and him by involving professionals
posted by carmicha at 3:54 PM on September 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'd call his mom. He gave you her number, and IMO in giving you her number he is giving you all the buy-in you need to get her involved.

Also, talk to a therapist or suicide prevention hotline about finding a way to support him that doesn't involve you taking responsibility for his behavior.

How do you normally respond when he brings this up? How does that conversation go?

He doesn't have to be consciously trying to manipulate you to get a charge out of your response and to repeat it to get another charge.
posted by bunderful at 4:05 PM on September 4, 2012

You can not fix him.

It is not your responsibility to fix him, because it can't be your responsibility to do something you aren't capable of.

You should not allow him to think, or to make you think, that it is your responsibility.

If someone is complaining of symptoms of a life-threatening condition, the only responsible thing to do is to insist they seek professional help. If a friend tells you they have chest pains and numbness in their left arm, you do not give them Maalox. You call 911. This is exactly the same.
posted by PMdixon at 4:15 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) If you're seriously actively serving as emotional support for someone this badly depressed, you probably need to be in therapy yourself. Not because There's Something Wrong With You, but because that shit is HARD and brings up a lot of complicated feelings and you'll feel better if you've got someone you can process that shit with.

2) If he kills himself, it will be his depression's fault, and not yours. The more deeply you can convince yourself of that, the better it will go. You might decide you want to try to help, and more power to you if you do, but if you fail -- or just walk away from the whole mess -- and he does go through with the threat to kill himself, that doesn't make you responsible for his death.

3) If someone is seriously threatening to kill themself in the near future, the best thing you can do is call 911. For real. And if someone is casually mentioning suicide on a regular basis, it can't hurt to LET THEM KNOW that that's gonna be your policy -- that any time you become convinced they're about to do something harmful, they're gonna get an ambulance at their door. If, as some people are worried, this guy is manipulating you, then making a credible threat to call 911 on him will make him stop. On the other hand, if this guy is actually just hanging onto his will to live by a thread, then you may end up making good on the threat/promise and calling 911 on him someday, and in that case it will be an act of kindness.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:17 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hon, you're not threadsitting. But neither can you be 24/7 sole emotional support for someone you describe as "delusionally depressed right now."

- Have you called suicide hotline in your area? Call them NOW.

- I'm still against contacting his parent (who is just another lay-person, vs. the qualified mental health professional needed here) but I am urging you to call SOME authority in his jurisdiction to help him.

The suicide hotline can make immediate recommendations to you on who to call in your friend's area.

Either friend is suicidal, delusional and requires professional intervention - or deep down you suspect there is something fraudulent going on and that's why you are here debating the situation.

I doubt this has anything to do with your "skills" as a layperson attempting to deal with what sounds like a medical mental health emergency. This is not about you, so go ahead and call in the cavalry.

It is even more clear from your update that you need to get professionals involved in this and then get out of the way.

Don't treat your friend's illness. You are not qualified, and as others have stated above, once you are credentialed, it will be unethical and medically unwise for you to treat friends or family.

Get others involved. Step away. Let them handle it.
posted by jbenben at 5:10 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Call the suicide hotline in his town. If there's one thing my crisis centre clients (I freelance) want people to know, it's that the crisis centre is for before you think there's a crisis. It's challenging that people think you have to be actively performing self harm to be in crisis. Really, the crisis centres want you to call and get support (for yourself as a supporting person and for your loved ones) before you think you need it. So call.

I've made the call because I was concerned about a friend. The centre gave me lots of info, made referrals and offered other support. It's worth a call. They can also help you look at his support network and figure out what to do, depending on the centre.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 6:02 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to recommend looking through some of the resources that have been offered here in the past on the Mefi Wiki There Is Help page.

Also, there is a section in specifically about AskMe Threads for Those Who WOuld Like to Help Someone Suffering From Depression.
posted by Miko at 7:13 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I called my friend's mom and told her he was talking about suicide. I don't regret it. I knew doing it could mean the end of our friendship (it did) but I believe it may have helped save his life. Worth it: he is alive. His daughter is adorable.
posted by prefpara at 7:35 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Hey friend, I have been thinking about you a lot lately and it makes me so worried. I can't stand thinking that I am the only one who knows how sad you are, and I'm haunted by the idea that you'll kill yourself and I will feel culpable forever.

So, if we are going to continue to be friends, I need you to get professional mental help. I'm sorry to give you an ultimatum but please know that it comes from a place of love. I care a lot about you, and I can't keep watching you suffer when i believe your life can be a lot better than this. If you need help finding a therapist I will help you. Love, whalebreath"

You have to mean it, though. Then if he says "no" go ahead and call his mother. And in the meantime copy out the serenity prayer and put it on the wall, because you are going to do all you can, and that is all. The rest will be up to him. Xo
posted by feets at 8:28 PM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was in this situation with my brother, where I was the only one who knew how depressed he was, and he was starting to talk of suicide. After a while of agonizing and feeling just like you're feeling, I finally told him:

"Listen, this is beyond me, and you need help. If you don't get help yourself within the next 24 hours, I am going to either tell our parents or call the suicide hotline on your behalf and figure out who I should officially contact in your area. You can choose. If you don't choose anything, I am telling our parents."

After initially being mad he then chose for me to tell our parents (interestingly, he couldn't bear to tell them himself). From there we all worked together to get him some professional help. He was pretty angry at the time, but I believe by warning him upfront and giving him some choice in the matter, it minimized any feelings of betrayal. But I was willing to potentially lose my relationship with him if it meant he got help. I'm so glad I did what I did. I shudder to think about what might have happened if I had continued to try to deal with everything on my own.
posted by forza at 8:47 PM on September 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

We already have an agreement that he will tell me if he is in danger of seriously hurting himself, and he gave me his mom's info so that I would have it.

I know you care about your friend. But you are using this completely nonbinding, arbitrary, nonsense "agreement" to distance yourself from this situation enough that you are not required to take any action. And while you know you will feel awful if he does go through with a suicide attempt, you're allowing yourself to believe that he's going to give you notice -- just because you made him promise he would. That's a dangerous assumption. Because as long as he reassures you that he's not going to harm himself "yet", you get to breathe a sigh of relief that you didn't actually have to call his mother, or the police. Maybe it'll be okay without you having to interfere.

But you do have to interfere, if you're really his friend. Call his mother, or the police, or someone, today. If he hates you forever, so what. If he's playing you, his bluff will be thoroughly called. And if he goes through an attempt anyway, you won't have to second-guess yourself forever. Get on the damned phone.
posted by Coatlicue at 10:29 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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