Home Commentary Opinion Helping Friends and Family with Suicidal Thoughts

Helping Friends and Family with Suicidal Thoughts


by Karen Kurle

I have had the humble privilege of working in mental health emergency services for 20 years.  People frequently ask me, “How do you continue to do that work?  It must be so hard and sad.”  The truth is, sometimes it is hard and sad, but it is also filled with true hope.  The people I see every day are alive, and I am hopeful that just one more day, one more minute, one more second will make the anguish a little less, and the strength that helped the person live through that anguish will continue to grow stronger.

Mental health, like physical health, affects us all.  Mental illness, like physical illness, also affects us all.  The continuum with which we experience mental and physical health is individual, but we can all empathize with feeling physically unwell on some level similarly. We can all empathize with what it’s like to feel mentally unwell at different times in our lives. We have all faced heartache, stress, sadness, anger, fear, and an array of other emotions as well.  Depression is a compilation of symptoms, just like a physical illness.

We need to talk about mental health and mental illness with the same genuine interest, vigor, and directness as we talk about physical health and physical illness. We need to talk about treatment options and recovery stories to promote overall mental wellness as we talk about treatment options and recovery stories promoting overall physical wellness. A person struggling with suicidal ideation (also called suicidal thoughts) is struggling just as fiercely as a person struggling with a physical ailment. I have visited with people from all walks of life and can tell you, mental illness, like physical illness, does not discriminate.

Recently, two very public figures, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, took their own lives.  Many people often ask me, “What should I do if I am worried someone might have suicidal thoughts?” Or “What should I do if I’m worried someone is depressed?” My answer might seem very simple and rudimentary: please ask them how they are.

This might seem very basic, but the reality is that genuinely asking someone how they are and being ready to listen to the honest answer is harder than we might think. Being willing to ask someone how they are doing when you know the answer might be disturbing can be incredibly difficult and scary. It is also true that many times a person struggling with their mental health will try and hide their troubles because they might feel ashamed or embarrassed.  When another person asks, “How are you?” they say, “I’m fine.”  The other person might continue to have concerns but is unsure how to show support because they don’t want to “pry” or be disrespectful.

In mental health emergency work, we find there are many ways for people to show genuine care and concern. Honestly stating why you’re concerned is the most respectful, transparent way to show your concern. If a person needs space, sending thoughtful, supportive messages through different media is another way to show care and concern.  I have also sat quietly with people just to be present and share the burden of the distress so they are not alone.  I have written cards, texts, and emails, and left voicemails just to show a person they are not alone, because isolation is a significant risk factor for suicide.

But the concerned family member, friend, colleague, or neighbor should never feel alone in offering someone support when they are struggling.  Help can always be found at Washington County Mental Health Emergency Services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Anyone can call for help and support for themselves and to get advice and guidance about what to do to help someone else.

Please call us at 229-0591 for support and guidance.

The journey is one step at a time.  You do not have to be alone on your journey.

Karen Kurrle is Intensive Care Services Director at Washington County Mental Health Services