Being a good friend when someone is thinking of suicide

We get mixed messages about how responsible we are when someone dies by suicide. After a suicide, we usually get the message that it was not our decision and so it wasn’t our fault. But, we’re also often told that if a friend is thinking of suicide, we have to tell someone to save their lives. So, which is it—are we responsible or not? Well, like a lot of things, it can be complicated.

Here is one way to think about it:

Imagine you’re driving down the road and you see a car wrecked in the ditch. You get out and find a friend hurt and lying on the ground. Of special concern is his leg which is bent in ways legs are not supposed to be bent. You’re a smart, caring person, but you’re not a doctor or trained to fix broken legs. So, you can comfort him by taking his hand, but with your other hand, dial 911 on your cell phone and get him to a place where they are good at fixing legs. That’s what a good friend does.
Or, perhaps you have a friend who gets cancer. You’re a smart, caring person and you want to help her. You can visit her, call her, text her, send her cards, bring her food (when she has an appetite), hang out, pray for her (if that’s your thing), and even take her to the doctor. What she doesn’t need you to do is come over with some chemotherapy that you made in your kitchen from a recipe that you found on the internet. That’s not your expertise and not your thing. She needs you to be her friend not her cancer doctor.

And if you have a friend who is depressed and thinking of suicide, solving that problem is not something that belongs on your to-do list. Your friend needs you to be a good friend, and in this case, that means supporting them in getting the care they need from people whose training and job it is to give treatment to people with depression and thoughts of suicide. Your friend needs you to be a friend and do the things friends do like talk, listen, do things together, keep in touch, and connect them to professional help when they are in a crisis. Your friend does not need you to be their therapist or to take responsibility for their lives—even good therapists don’t do that. Your friend needs you to be their friend.

Greg Adams LCSW, ACSW, FT