How to recover from a friend’s attempted suicide

When you first find out someone you know has tried to take their own life, you might feel lots of different things. Shock, grief, hurt, anger, guilt and even numbness – however you’re feeling is okay.

If you’re close to the person and are one of their main support people, make sure you have people around you who can help you get through. Caring for someone else while they’re going through something so painful can be difficult – you need support and aroha too.

For a while, life will be different. It’s normal to feel fearful, ashamed or confused. With time and the right support you will both get through this.

Unfortunately, recovery from a suicide attempt can be both physically and mentally challenging. The person you’re supporting may still be experiencing suicidal distress. Find out how to help them through this here.

If you are recovering from your own suicide attempt, we have information for you here.

Here’s how you can help:

Immediately after a suicide attempt:

  • Call your local mental health crisis assessment team or go with them to the emergency department (ED) at your nearest hospital.
  • If they are an immediate physical danger to themselves or others, call 111.
  • Stay with them until support arrives.
  • Remove any obvious means of suicide they might use (e.g. guns, medication, car keys, knives, rope).
  • Try to stay calm and let them know you care.
  • Keep them talking: listen and ask questions without judging.
  • Make sure you are safe.

Supporting someone who is recovering after an attempt

When you’re supporting someone who is recovering from a suicide attempt, prepare to be there and stay involved, offer support, listen without judgement and remember this isn’t something you can fix.

You might need to be prepared to have difficult conversations about what's going on in their life and how they are feeling.

If they don’t already have a safety plan, ask them if they would be comfortable working with you to create one. It’s important for you both (as well as anyone else supporting them) to know what to do and where to go if they become suicidal again. We have a free template you can use here.

  • Keep talking to them and don’t avoid talking about suicide or the hard things in their life (but make sure this isn’t the only thing you talk to them about).
  • Don't give up on them and try not to lose contact with them, even if it seems like they are ignoring you.
  • Help them feel there is hope of things getting better – identify positive things in their life.
  • If they don’t want to talk with you, ask other people you both trust to support them – friends, family or whānau members, youth workers or others
  • Help them to access professional help, like a doctor or counsellor. You could offer to go with them or help them to make appointments.
  • Let them know about free counselling services – and remember these services are there for you, too:
  • Support them to do the things they enjoy, keep physically active and connect with others.
  • Help them identify any ways they can change their lifestyle to restore balance. This might mean cutting back on alcohol or drugs, doing some exercise, making time for themselves, or getting enough sleep.
  • Accept them for who they are and let them know you care.
  • When they're ready, support them to make plans for their future, solve problems and set goals.

Helplines and local mental health services

Self-care

Remember to take care of yourself when you are caring for others:

  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating properly and exercising.
  • Be kind to yourself and take time out when you need to. This can be very difficult – remember you can’t do everything.
  • Connect in with or build your support system – this might involve talking to your kaumatua or kuia, a spiritual leader, a counsellor or trusted friends and whānau.

Build a support network

It’s important to involve others to help you and the person you're supporting – don't try to do everything yourself.

  • Ask the person you're supporting to tell you what they need, what works for them and who should be involved. Make sure you listen to their needs but be clear that you can’t be the only person supporting them – they need to choose three to five other people to join the support team.
  • Your support network might include kaumatua or kuia, cultural elders, religious leaders or community groups, as well as friends, family and whānau. It might include people who have been through something similar to the person you're supporting, and can share how they got through it.
  • Bring the group together in a safe space.
  • Talk openly and honestly about the situation.
  • Talk to the person you’re supporting about what they will do if they feel suicidal again, how they plan to keep safe, and how others can help with this.
  • Develop a plan together to support the person – identify how different people can help. Get professional help if you need it. Talk to your local doctor, medical centre, community mental health team or counselling service.

Asking ‘why’

When someone you know tries to take their own life, most people want to know why.

Firstly, it’s important to understand they may not know why, or even if, they wanted to end their own life. They might feel confused at first.

Some of the reasons people have given for attempting suicide have included:

  • The situation was so unbearable, I couldn’t think of an alternative.
  • I felt trapped. There was no other way I could get away.
  • I was just so agitated and completely on the edge all the time, I needed to do something.
  • I felt overwhelmed and out of control.
  • I needed to get help and let others know how desperate I felt.
  • I felt like a failure and a burden. I just wanted to make it easier for those around me.
  • I don’t know why I did it.

Although it might become clearer as time goes on, you may never truly understand what led to them trying to take their own life. They may not want you to know or they may never be able to explain it. They may be okay with talking to you or someone else about it or they may want to keep it private. While it’s understandable to look for answers, it’s not helpful for this to be your main focus.

Since I’ve begun sharing how I went from a being a pastor to being hospitalized in a psych ward, people often ask about my recovery. Everyone wants to know, is there a single solution? Where does the magic lie? How do they get their own lives (or their loved ones’) back? Or, as others have said, “What is the one thing that made you want to start living again?”

The truth is, there’s no magic formula, but here are some intentional steps that made my life better. I’m not a professional therapist, and everyone has a different recovery story. I can only share from my own experience.

Here are five steps that helped me recover after my suicide attempt:

1. Accepting treatment.

If I had cancer, you can bet I would take chemo. I might also listen to the naturopath’s advice to drink special juices and cut out refined sugars, or to follow the path of meditation to wholeness. But I would still take chemo.

Mental illness is a real thing. A disease. When the doctor says the chemicals in your brain aren’t firing correctly and a certain medication will help level you out, listen to the doctor.

It took a few tries to find the meds that were right for me, but it’s worth the hassle. Some made me too sleepy, some made me too grumpy, but eventually we settled on meds that helped me find my new normal.

Again, I’m no professional, but don’t rely on your primary care physician to help you sort out the complicated maze of mental health. You wouldn’t go to your family doctor for cancer treatment, so why would you do that for psychiatric needs?

Counseling was also an important part of my recovery. After my suicide attempt, spending time with a professional saved my marriage and, ultimately, my life.

2. Stop apologizing.

When my son was a toddler, he went through a very difficult time with his stomach. Frequently, he would vomit and make major messes. Each time, he would cry. “Dada,” he would say, “I’m sorry I frowed up.” My son couldn’t control having stomach trouble any more than I can control a panic attack in the middle of the work day. Both are inconvenient and problematic, but I wouldn’t choose anxiety or depression any more than someone would willingly choose to vomit.

I don’t owe anyone an apology for my mental illness. You don’t either.

3. Find a strong support system.

There are those who care about your soul, and there are those who only care to know what’s going on. It’s important to know the difference. Surround yourself with those who are willing to walk with you through the hard days. Be gracious with those who love you, but can’t help you.

4. Practice self-care.

Get good, solid, uninterrupted sleep. Don’t stay up all hours of the night to binge on your favorite show or read just one more chapter. I find when I’m tired, my symptoms are worse.

I’ve also learned to practice better eating. I’m a busy guy, and I’ve never been a big breakfast eater. See how I just made two excuses? No more excuses. Take your nutrition seriously. I’m not saying you have to join a gym, or post before and after pictures on social media. I’m just saying to eat as healthy as you can and as regularly as you can. It will help you feel better and get the most out of your day.

As a person with mental illness, there are so many triggers I can’t control — but I do have control over how I take care of myself.

5. Focus on the recovery, not the stigma.

The stigma of mental illness sucks. But worse is not getting better. And all any of us really want is to get better. Remember this: you are not your diagnosis. So, use your diagnosis to design a recovery plan and keep moving forward. Mental illness is not a death sentence.

Follow this journey on I Am Steve Austin. Click here to sign up for his free “Manifesto for Hard Days.”

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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When someone you love attempts to take their life, it can evoke a range of strong emotions. You may feel angry, sad, or afraid. You may be anxious about your loved one’s future. You may feel as though you, yourself, have experienced a trauma. It is important that you seek support and take steps to care for yourself.

Recovery is a process

“My loved one is home from the hospital. Does that mean they are better?”

Encourage your loved one to stay in counseling, and to communicate any thoughts of suicide to their treatment provider.

Be patient and gentle. Don’t be discouraged by what may seem like setbacks or slow progress.

The recovery process is different for everyone. Recovery usually extends long beyond hospitalization, and will involve support from professionals, as well as friends and family. The first six months after a hospitalization are especially critical to the suicide attempt survivor’s recovery, and the risk for suicide remains elevated for the entire first year.

Be with them

One of the most powerful gifts you can provide at this time is your presence. Even when you don’t know what to say, just be there with them. For the first few weeks, they need you very close. Face to face is best, but there are so many ways to connect with technology – skype, phone, text, social media.

During their crisis, your loved one may have perceived themselves as being completely alone, or a burden on you and the others who love them.

A plan for recovery

Talk openly with your loved one. Ask them what they need, and help them create a good plan for their recovery.

Witnessing a friend's suicide attempt leaves an imprint on the viewer.

THE BASICS

  • Suicide Risk Factors and Signs
  • Find a therapist near me

About two years ago, I came face to face with the suicide attempt of my best friend, Bella. Distraught, she had called to tell me she loved me and that I was the best thing that ever happened to her. I listened to her cry for a few minutes until she suddenly disconnected. I was immediately filled with a sense of fear and dread.

Soon in my car breaking the speed limit, I was yet unaware of how my life was about to change.

Bella suffered from clinical depression and although she kept it a secret from most, I was well aware of her struggles. She had two kinds of days: bad and terrible. Her boyfriend had just broken up with her, which sent her into a tailspin. She was in an inescapable depressive state, filled with thoughts of suicide.

Many parents who experience such episodes with their children are plagued with mixed emotions of self-blame, anger, shock, and grief. They often feel powerless, not knowing how to help their children, and the threat of losing them is ever-present. Bella’s parents were no different. They were emotionally exhausted and needed a break. When I got to Bella’s house, I told her parents that I would stay with her for a couple of hours.

We watched TV in silence, and soon Bella looked toward me decidedly, as if she had finally settled on a course of action. She told me she had to go to the washroom downstairs.

Minutes passed and she had not returned. An overwhelming anxiety came over me, I had to check on her. As I walked down the stairs—my heart beating rapidly and my mind venturing to the unthinkable—I saw her. Face blue, eyes red. She was attempting to strangle herself with a rope she had found in the basement.

Although sparse, research on the effects of witnessing a peer’s suicide attempt shows that the event can have a strong impact on the witness. Individuals may develop varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) or other anxiety disorders. Experiencing powerful and recurrent memories of the event and avoiding situations that may remind one of the trauma, create a cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that can make treatment challenging.

According to clinical psychologist Daniel Hoover of Baylor College of Medicine, anyone in direct contact with a suicide attempt should seek out treatment following the event (which doesn’t necessarily have to be one-on-one counseling to be effective).

When I saw Bella trying to kill herself, I immediately rushed over, removed the rope, and hugged her. She cried, gasping for air, furiously yelling at me for stopping her.

For a long time afterward, this image of Bella was embedded in my mind.

And I felt profoundly guilty after the incident: If I had not let Bella leave my sight, she might not have attempted suicide. This thought often came to mind. A vicious cycle of uncertainty plagued my daily activities. I was holding myself accountable for actions that were ultimately out of my control.

THE BASICS

  • Suicide Risk Factors and Signs
  • Find a therapist near me

I kept her suicide attempt a secret from everyone in my life. I didn’t want to hurt her reputation or break her trust, and I became tormented by the trauma, but I couldn’t confide in family or friends for fear of having to explain Bella’s story. For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone.

Brian L. Mishara, the author of The Impact of Suicide, suggests that telephone support programs can reduce the emotional burden on family and friends. Counselors build a relationship with their clients and provide information on healthy coping strategies and useful resources—all over the telephone. Counseling calls tend to continue weekly over a period of time until the person feels comfortable coping with their traumatic experience.

Although challenging, recovery is possible. Two years later, I’m doing much better. For one thing, I needed to realize that Bella’s suicide attempt was not my fault. You can only do so much to help a loved one when they are suffering from suicidal thoughts. We want to protect our friends and family members, but we also need to protect ourselves.

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And suffering alone doesn’t work. Withholding your thoughts after a traumatic event can compromise your physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Coping with a loved one’s suicide attempt is not easy. Finding someone you trust and expressing your thoughts is helpful. It’s much easier to cope when you have a trusted ally by your side.

Coping with the deep hurt after surviving a suicide attempt and finding hope is possible. The Lifeline is available for support, 24/7.

How To Take Care Of Yourself

You can recover from a suicide attempt. It takes time to heal both physically and emotionally, but healing and help can happen.

Find an activity you enjoy: Taking care of yourself is an important part of your recovery. Your “self-care” activities can be anything that makes you feel good about yourself.

Talk to someone: Silence isn’t strength. Don’t keep suicidal feelings to yourself. Lean on your support network, find a therapist or a support group, or get in touch with the Lifeline.

Make a safety plan: Have a step-by-step plan ready for if/when you feel depressed, suicidal, or in crisis, so you can start at step one and continue through the steps until you feel safe.

Find a counselor: Suicide attempt survivors and researchers who study suicide recommend counseling to help find long-term strategies to ease the emotional pain that led to your attempt.

How To Help

Ask and listen: Be an active part of your loved ones’ support systems and check in with them often. If a they show any warning signs for suicide, be direct. Tell them it’s OK to talk about suicidal feelings. Practice active listening techniques and let them talk without judgment.

Be understanding: Do not make them feel guilty. Don’t make it about you. Listen and be as understanding as possible.

Give a hug: Let them know that they are still loved and that you still want them in your life. Sometimes, a hug can say more than a thousand words.

Get them help and take care of yourself: Don’t be afraid to get your loved one the help they might need. The Lifeline is always here to talk or chat, both for crisis intervention and to support allies. Helping a loved one through a crisis is never easy. You might want to talk about your feelings with another friend or a counselor.

Resources For Attempt Survivors

Stories of Hope and Recovery

Terry Wise survived a suicide attempt in her thirties and has since become a well-known author and speaker.

“If I was to sum up my life today, the word that I would use to describe it is fulfilling.”

Bart is a clinical psychologist who’s past has shaped how he approaches life and his career today.

“For me, it’s important because I think there’s a lot of us. We’re really afraid to tell our stories because we’re afraid we’re going to lose our jobs. People are going to take our degrees away. They’re going to take our licenses away. They’re going to think I’m not a good therapist. What that means is that we don’t talk about it. And if we view other providers this way, what does it say about the people that we treat if we have this view of providers as being “damaged goods” or “wounded?”

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

This story appears via Live Through This, a Lifeline partner.

Julia shares what she’s learned as a suicide attempt survivor and hopes to educate those in a similar situation with a loved one.

“If anything, life is starting over now. I am going to be OK. I have survived a lot which has made me far from fragile.”

This story appears via The Mighty, a Lifeline partner.

Pablo plays a word game with himself to combat negative thinking, and it works!

“It’s just getting into the habit of recognizing it and then putting the brakes on it. And you just kind of keep doing that.”

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

This story appears via Live Through This, a Lifeline partner.

Jordan, a suicide attempt survivor, says he was better able to cope with his depression once he accepted it.

“It’s important to have a healthy emotional balance. [and] the best way to find that is to know yourself…know what makes you happy.”

Jennifer wants to be a voice for those too afraid to speak up about mental illness and advocate for more accessible services.

“I’m hopeful that just maybe I can be one more voice that gets somebody somewhere to pay attention to the fact that there’s an actual. problem here and being quiet about it. deciding that it can only be spoken of in hushed tones and making it this taboo subject is not doing anybody any favors.”

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

This story appears via Live Through This, a Lifeline partner.

Patty thinks that the world is populated with survivors and knows that sharing stories is an important part of tapping into that network.

“I think it’s important for me to tell my story because people survive all kinds of things. What I’ve seen coast to coast, if a person is a survivor, it’s important that people should know that.”

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

I begged to be discharged from the hospital the first time I went inpatient.

I was a Senior in high school and it was the weekend before graduation. I couldn’t miss my last week of high school before all my friends and myself went our separate ways to colleges across the country. In fact, I even argued that I would be more suicidal if I stayed.

Somehow, between my arguments and my mother’s sympathy, I was discharged after one night, under the agreement that I would seek additional support as well as medication management.

I left the hospital Sunday morning and the very next day I was on a bus going to the beach with the rest of the seniors.

In the moments before meeting up with my friends I had felt a wave of relief. I had been suicidal since I was a child when I was living with my abusive biological mother after the passing of my first adoptive parent.

It was passive then, wishing I’d disappear silently and without pain, so my torment would be no more. I hoped it would dissipate when I went into the safety of my second adoptive family’s arms.

Unfortunately, that’s not how mental illness works.

Because of my traumas I had developed what would later be known as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and complex PTSD. This caused me to lose sense with my reality often and split into wishing I was dead. As I grew older wishing turned into actions. I became self-injurious and started to plan an actual attempt.

I felt like I didn’t need to live in a secret anymore. For a moment, I was free.

When I told my closest friend she rolled her eyes and claimed it’s always about me. She accused me of lying, trying to take the attention of other people.

Years later I would be hospitalized again after a psychotic episode that was a result of an attempted overdose, this time for a week. Again, I craved the safety of my friends upon my release and was only met with closed ears. No one seemed comfortable enough to talk about the fact that my mental illness was real and I was very sick.

It is something I have experienced time and time again as a multiple suicide attempt survivor.

No one knows the appropriate way to approach someone who has attempted suicide.

Is it the fear of triggering an already delicate person?

Or is it that the taboo of severe mental illness is so prevalent that we are disconnected from compassion?

There are many different ways that I would find to be helpful to be approached after a suicide attempt, although I am in recovery now with my BPD and haven’t felt a self-injurious urge in almost a year. It may not sound like much, but for me, that’s the longest in my whole life that I haven’t felt a desire to not exist.

Here are a few ways you can support a loved one after a suicide attempt.

1. Treat it like any other illness

Buy a card, a bouquet of bright flowers, a get well soon balloon. Visit your friend in the hospital if they’ve been admitted. They don’t need to be in isolation. Mental illness is just as real as physical illness and it dismisses the stigma to approach it as such.

2. Approach with compassion and care

If your friend was in a car accident their hospital room would be flooded with gifts and well wishes; someone who survives a suicide attempt, a lifetime trauma, deserves just as much love.

Don’t come from a place of judgment and tell them why you can’t imagine why they did what they did; quite frankly, they might not even be so sure without the help of a professional to process everything going on in their head. Treat this with kindness and care, not criticism. Trust me, they’re already their own worst critic.

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3. Ask how you ​can help

Your loved one may need to be going to regular group therapy, might have to adjust to new medications, or have trouble adapting to a regular routine. Ask them if you can cook a few prepared meals if they need a ride to their new appointments so they can talk to someone after.

Try to meet with them as regularly as your schedule allows you to show your support.

4. If you are close to them, ask if they can share their safety plan

A safety plan is something professionals and their patients set up to help have a strategy for if the person becomes suicidal again. This is to avoid having a non-CIT (crisis intervention trained) officer arriving on the scene; this can cause a bigger crisis for someone in dire need.

Ask if you can know their safety plan in place so you know what to do if they are ever in crisis again. Knowledge is power and having a plan can save a life.

5. Just listen

Especially if you’ve never experienced being suicidal, just open your ears up to your loved one and show that you’re there. Don’t give feedback, don’t offer advice (especially if you’re without a mental illness). Just let them talk and show them you’re a safe place to come to. Create trust.

To be honest, I’ve thought about what I was going to say in this letter for a while now, and I’m still not quite sure I have the right words. But that’s the thing about words: context is everything. You take them out of a context they were meant for and place them in another, and they make no sense or they change the meaning of the new context. If you do this enough times, the words become useless — displacing and relocating until the original meaning is lost. Right now, you’re probably hearing a lot of words from family and friends, some you may even be saying to yourself. Don’t take these words out of context. Your friends and family are probably telling you they love you. Don’t turn these words into an “I love you, but…”

You may be feeling a lot of feelings right along with these words: anger, sadness, shame and maybe even some guilt.

Everything you are feeling right now is valid. Every emotion you have and don’t have is valid. Some days you might be feeling everything at once, and somedays you might be feeling nothing at all — you might not know which one is worse; neither do I.

I don’t know your story. I don’t know what led you to attempt suicide. I don’t know if it was a genetic predisposition, a single event or a series of events culminating in this one cataclysmic moment in your life. Whatever happened, your past is valid. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. Don’t let anybody take the pain you might be feeling away from you and assign it to themselves. You are grieving. You are hurting. They, too, may be grieving and hurting, but this is not about them. This is about you. To take the focus away from you is to invalidate the pain you are feeling. Let the emotions roll over you like waves; take them as they come, one at a time.

I’m writing this letter, I’m telling you all of this because I understand. I understand what it’s like to be on the front lines of this very real battle. I understand what it’s like to feel as though giving up is your only option. I understand because I, too, attempted suicide.

I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of my life. I’m still trying to recover. I’m still wrestling with tough feelings and intrusive thoughts that won’t go away. Sometimes I wonder why I survived when so many others do not. Maybe you’re wondering that, too. Maybe you’re wondering what you did to deserve all this pain. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, for every answer I don’t have, I have a million more questions.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: time goes on. Time goes on, but I still live my life in terms of anniversaries. I focus on how long it’s been since the events in my past, because that way I don’t have to focus on the future. The future terrifies me simply because it’s unknown. I live in terms of anniversaries because they’re set in stone. I know what’s happened in my life, but I don’t know what’s going to. And that terrifies me.

I look to the past because it helps me gauge how far I’ve come. I’ve survived x, y and z, and today I did a, b, and c.

I don’t know where you are in your healing journey, or even if you have begun healing yet. I am going to tell you that the journey ahead of you is going to be long and hard. I tell you this not to scare you, but to remind you that you are a survivor. You are strong. You can do this. And you need to have faith in something — I don’t know if it’s God, or if you wonder if God’s abandoned you. I wondered that too for a long time. Sometimes I still do.

Sometimes the only thing I can believe in is gravity. I have faith that the ground will stay firm beneath my feet, holding me up when I am too weak to stand.

Believe in something. It’s the only way you’re going to get through this.

I’m not going to say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, because to do so would be to deny the truth that sometimes this pain doesn’t go away. I’m also not going to tell you to stay here because there are people who love you. If love were enough, the world would be different.

I’m telling you depression will come in cycles — high tides and low tides. Some days it’ll feel like you’re floating on air, like you’re weightless, you can do anything. Some days, it’ll feel like your chest is collapsing because the weight of the world is too much to bear. Have faith this too shall pass.

Some days it might seem like you’re living at the South Pole, where the sun doesn’t rise for months at a time. But even there, there are months where the sun doesn’t set. Have faith that in the darkest times, there will be light again. If you ever need to be reminded of this, look outside during the darkest night. Sometimes the only way to see stars is to have darkness.

I am telling you to stay here because right now, you are walking through a valley. But when you start climbing up the other side, when you reach the top of the mountain, the view is so beautiful.

I’m telling you to live for the little things. Find what makes you happy and do it. Read, write, dance in the rain, pet every animal you come across, listen to music, eat that cupcake, go see that movie. Sometimes we are so focused on the road ahead of us, we forget to live in the moment. Sometimes we are so focused on the here and now, we forget that it’s not forever.

I don’t know if this letter has helped or hurt or really if it’s made any sense at all. But I’m going to end with this personal story:

The summer after my freshman year of college, I went to Guatemala with a group of students. One day we went to a multi-story mall. A smaller group of students and I, while exploring, went to one of the upper levels of the parking garage. As I went and stood next to the barrier and looked around and over to the ground, I thought I was going to feel the urge to jump. I always had before, which is why I tend to avoid heights. But in that moment, as the sun was beginning to set and the horizon was turning to hazy dusk, I felt this sense of calm and peace rush over me. If only for a moment. That’s how I know I’m beginning to heal.

A few days later, we were serving dinner in the Guatemala City dump. A teammate and I climbed onto the top of the bus and looked around. As I looked over the dilapidated, rundown metal shanties in front of me, I caught sight of the mountains in the distance. In that moment, I was reminded beauty and brokenness can live right alongside each other. Out of brokenness comes beauty.

You are beautiful.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

There have always been “get well soon” cards to send friends who are hurt or sick and need some good wishes. However, there isn’t a go-to Hallmark response for what to say to someone after they’ve attempted suicide.

We can find ourselves stumbling on our own words and being at a loss of what to say. In a lot of cases, most people don’t say anything. This is not the appropriate way to respond to a suicide attempt though. While your loved one is in a sensitive place, there are ways you can show your support and help them return to a healthier normal.

1. “I’m sorry.”

Your friend is sick. Wanting to harm yourself in any way is a byproduct of mental illness. Just because you can’t see the illness like you can with the flu or pain like a broken bone doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s just in their brain.

This is a time of loss and it demands respect. After a suicide attempt, a person tends to lose a lot; be it connections or shedding their skin from old ways that they don’t want to relapse into. It’s important at this time to recognize their pain. Tell them you’re sorry that they were in that place and genuinely mean it.

If you have felt this way in the past, share your experience without overwhelming them or taking away the spotlight. Share with your loved one that you wish they weren’t in pain and didn’t have to feel that intense self-loathing that led them to this action.

2. “You are important to me.”

This is best to do casually. You don’t want to make a big scene and overwhelm your loved one when they’re already in a vulnerable and sensitive place. Bring up a memory of significance, a moment in time where you absolutely adored them. How magical they seemed at that moment, how much they meant to you then. Tell them little details you remember and be as detailed as your memory allows. Remind them that it is moments like this that have a great impact on your life and that you would be sad if you couldn’t have them anymore.

Try not to say things like “if you were gone/dead/not alive.” Although they may be saying they want to get better, they may still have lingering suicidal ideation. People don’t attempt suicide and right after finding the gratitude, they need to stay alive forever, although it may come in waves. People need time to heal their minds from that dark place, time to process and find what will keep them going. It’s unfair to put pressure on them to “stay alive” however it can be appropriate to say you would miss hanging out if you couldn’t anymore.

It is more than okay to remind them of how special they are; just don’t put pressure on them to have to stay alive, for your sake. They should be working to keep living for themselves. Guilt can be unbearable for suicide attempt survivors and lead to a relapse in thinking.

3. “How can I help?”

If you know them well enough, ask if they’re comfortable sharing their safety plan with you. It can be really alarming and dangerous to call law enforcement on a suicidal person. They may prefer that if you’re with them in crisis to call their therapist or health care provider to get them to help in a much less volatile situation. They may also have family members or housemates that they would prefer you to contact if you are concerned and need to talk to someone without alarming your loved one.

If they need a ride to therapy and it’s a time you’re free, ask if they’d like a ride with you once in a while, maybe stopping for lunch after. If they need to start journaling ask if you can hold each other accountable and journal at the same time.

Don’t just show your support in the first few weeks. If you are close to them ask how you can be an active participant in their recovery, telling them you want to help in any way they may need you (as long as your energy allows).

4. “Let’s get together!”

Start planning a vacation away together, even for a weekend! Plan day trips, especially those that support things they are interested in. Make a monthly coffee date or a weekly game night. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t make any promises you can’t keep. It’s important that any ideas you have for the future with your loved ones are things you can commit to and hold up to. It can become disheartening for a suicidal person when people cancel plans; it can retrigger feelings of being worthless and unloved.

Ask them things you can do together for future hangs. Get creative, make a little investment in something they can look forward to. Give them something they can hang on to and gently remind them of the wonderful future, directly focused on an event you can do together. This is a way to motivate your loved one to keep looking forward without overwhelming them with ideas of forever.

It can be nerve-wracking to talk to someone who has been suicidal. We don’t want to cause more damage or say the wrong thing. However, by making plans for a better future, being sincere, reminding them of their worth and wonders, and assisting them in the future can reassure your loved one that everything will be okay in time.

It’s important to treat them as the person you have always loved and will always love. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room; face it and ask where to go from here.

If you or somebody that you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, there is a way to get help. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or text “HELLO” to 741741 to be connected with the Crisis Text Line.

Survivors tell us what went through their minds in what they expected to be their final moments — and what it’s like to return to a life they tried to end.

By Rheana Murray Photos & Video Laura Spotteck
Aug.31.2018 / updated Sep.23.2019

Every year , more than 45,000 people die by suicide in America. If that number sounds striking, consider this: For every suicide death, there are 25 suicide attempts.

As the 10th leading cause of death in this country, suicide is an increasing health concern and a growing issue among young people in particular. Recent research shows that more kids, especially girls, are thinking about suicide.

For many survivors, their attempts aren’t isolated incidents. TODAY spoke to people who detailed multiple occasions of trying to end their lives, and in some cases, entire lifetimes spent battling suicidal thoughts, and always feeling as if they’re on the brink of a fatal decision, one that feels largely out of their control.

Watch survivors share their stories:

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While suicide attempt survivors are at a greater risk of suicide than the rest of the population, research shows that most do, in fact, survive.

These are some of their stories.

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

How to recover from a friend's attempted suicide

I thought that my kids would be better off without me.

The first time Nancy Nettles tried to kill herself was on her 31st birthday. She was living out of her car with two young children, struggling to find steady work in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I remember thinking that my kids would be better off if I wasn’t here,” she said. “I was homeless, jobless … I felt like someone else would be able to take care of them.”

Nettles attempted to overdose, but her 7-year-old daughter found her and called 911. She woke up in a hospital and spent a week at an inpatient psychiatric unit. Nettles attempted suicide twice more that same year, each time landing in the hospital.

“I was so mad at God,” she said. “I can’t even describe how angry I was that I was still alive. I mean, the energy that I had in being so angry that I was not dead is the kind of energy we need to stay alive.”

Nettles, now 52, had been sexually molested and raped as a child, traumas she kept mostly secret.

“My father was a pastor — we didn’t talk about those things,” she said. “You didn’t talk about sexual trauma. You never talked about suicide or even having those feelings.”

As an adult, she experienced divorce, poverty, homelessness and a debilitating diagnosis of multiple sclerosis — enough to drive anyone to a dangerous place. And as a black woman in America, she often had to cope with extra challenges as she sought help, as if her identity somehow disqualified her from having mental health problems; black women have historically had one of the lowest suicide rates of all the demographic groups.

“They would come at me with, ‘Do you have a church?’” Nettles said. “And the second thing was, ‘You’re a strong black woman. Why are you doing this to yourself?’ And I’m trying to understand this narrative of being a strong black woman and having a mental illness. What does one have to do with the other?”

Today Nettles, a former opera singer, works as a therapist in Nashville, where her children, now young adults, also live.

“I’m really blessed that they love me past all the crap that we lived through,” she said.

The moments before a suicide

What kind of mindset does someone have to be in to reach the point of suicide? After all, many people think about suicide without ever making an attempt.

While it doesn’t answer what drives someone to that ultimate decision, there is a concept called cognitive constriction that explains what happens in the brain during a suicidal crisis.

“The actual physiological functioning of certain parts of the brain changes in this acute suicidal moment,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “What’s happening in the brain is there’s a narrowing of coping options that stems from changes in the brain’s ability to come up with three or four ideas to problem-solve, like it usually would.”

“It’s really hard to fight with your own brain,” Moutier said. “It’s not letting you access your other ways of thinking.”

Cognitive constriction is often described as a feeling of tunnel vision, as if you’re seeing through a straw, or wearing blinders. People in this state can’t see beyond their circumstances, and don’t believe their pain will ever end. That’s why we hear suicide attempt survivors say phrases like, “I thought it was the only way out.” This also helps dispel the myth that people who die by suicide are weak or selfish; in that state, those traits are irrelevant.

“I’ve heard it described as a mental toothache,” said Dr. Stacey Freedenthal, a psychotherapist in Denver who wrote about her own suicide attempt in The New York Times. “If you have a toothache, all you can think about is the pain in your tooth. And combine that with the conviction that this pain will never end.”

This mental distortion isn’t permanent, but people can’t see that in the moment. That’s part of the reason suicidal people are counseled to come up with safety plans to turn to in a time of crisis, which often consist of a list of people to contact and activities that will calm them down and provide distraction.

Some suicidal gun owners are urged to store their guns outside of the home, or, according to one news story, even freeze their bullets in ice cube trays, with the thinking that by the time the person obtains the means to die, the urge will have passed. And oftentimes, people experiencing cognitive constriction can’t think creatively enough to find an alternate method, Moutier said.

That’s not to say that no suicides are premeditated. Certainly, many are. And while there are countless factors that can contribute to one’s wish to take his or her own life, the ultimate decision is often an impulsive one. Kevin Hines, who survived a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge, has famously said that in the moments after he jumped, he regretted his suicide attempt.

The message is simple: If you can stand to wait, the moment may pass.

“It’s a short period when for a few minutes, maybe up to an hour, that cognitive constriction occurs,” Moutier said. “And that transient nature of the physical change is why if people can live through it, they can regain their usual healthy coping functions and survive long beyond that moment.”