Consider this scenario: you walk by your teen’s bedroom and over ear them having a deep conversation with a friend. While you don’t want to eaves drop, you realize their friend is disclosing thoughts of suicide. Your heart starts pounding… your teen is attempting to give advice to a friend who is considering ending their own life. You are worried about the friend, but you are also concerned that this could lead to anxiety and sadness in your teen. What do you do?
I’ve been asked for advice in this situation over and over again. Sometimes it’s my patients who ask me for advice on what they should say to their friends, but often it is parents who want to know if it’s ok for their child to be someone’s confidant? They are worried that their teen isn’t equipped to handle the situation (neither emotionally or with reliable crisis information to give to the friend).
I’ve discussed this situation with my social work and counseling colleagues and we’ve often provided some guidance to both parents and patients on the topic of navigating self-care when friends rely on you for support. As professionals who offer services for mental health, we have to use some of the same strategies ourselves. Providing support for people who are in crisis can be stressful. We empathize with their distress, we want to step in and solve the problems, and we value the life of the person who is talking to us! Listed below is advice we often give:
- Do take talk of suicide seriously. If a friend talks about going away, feeling hopeless, death, or suicide in general do give them crisis resources.
- It’s ok to be a supportive friend, but you can’t be your friend’s therapist. Mental health counselors have years of education around behavior change and emotion regulation in addition to their lived experience and expertise in working with people going through stress. As a friend, listening, acknowledging their struggle, then guiding them towards expert help is going to serve the best.
- Hearing about trauma and depression is hard, so make sure you feel supported too. I ask every teen if they have a trusted person in their lives. If they don’t, this is one of the first goals we work on. Teens (and parents) need to have people who can bring them joy, distract them from anxiety provoking situations, and help them navigate the complicated mental health system.
- Know your national and local crisis lines. Though your teen may not be a mental health professional, they are a trusted resource if someone is disclosing thoughts of suicide. Equip them with resources that can help. 1-800-273-8255 is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Consider mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help us de-stress, remain calm in high risk situations, and lower our own flight or fight response (the adrenaline rush we feel in a crisis). This helps us provide reassurance to a person in stress without becoming overly anxious ourselves. Examples of mindfulness practices can be found here.
- General self care also includes exercise, nutrition, and sleep!