Guiding their way back 

Having someone you care about attempt suicide can be an incredibly traumatic experience. You might respond with anger, fear or sadness. You might also find yourself asking questions; many of them beginning with why?

It is natural to have many different feelings, thoughts and concerns. You might not know what to do or what to say. This resource is a starting point for working through some of the questions that can come up after a suicide attempt. 

People who have attempted suicide and their family members and friends played an important role in the development of the information presented below. They described experiencing intense emotional periods following an attempt and reflected on the type of content you may need and want when someone you care about attempts suicide.



Providing support through the immediate response

If either a family member, friend or someone you support has attempted suicide, it is important that they see a doctor or mental health worker at either a hospital or clinic to make sure their physical and mental health are both okay.


At the hospital

If the person is admitted to hospital, their physical injuries will be examined, followed by a mental health assessment. 

During this assessment, the mental health professional will speak with the person about what has happened, why, and if any risks remain. This will typically cover how they are managing their mood, daily activities, relationships and the stresses in life. The health professional will then assist with making plans for the next few days, such as appointments and contact with a health service.

Seeing a General Practitioner

If the person goes to the local medical clinic a General Practitioner (GP) will discuss the situation and determine if further medical tests are needed. Once the doctor or health worker is satisfied there are no physical problems, they will talk more about what has been happening, supports available at home, and risk of further harm. They might also suggest seeing a local counsellor or health service.

The GP’s will put plans in place to ensure they have ongoing support and probably encourage returning for follow up appointments to monitor how they are coping and whether there is enough support.

See the Get support now page for a range of services available.

While medical treatment is happening

While health professionals are reviewing the person there are things you can do to support them.

  • Avoid making judgments or asking too many questions about what has happened – sometimes sitting in silence with a person provides the comfort they need. 
  • Let them know you are there to listen if they want to talk.
  • Provide assurance that you will be there to support them through this.
  • If you need some time and space to come to terms with what has happened, excuse yourself and take the time you need to refocus. Talking with the treating health professionals might support you to understand more about what is happening.
  • Offer to assist them if and when they need to provide information to health professionals and advocate for their needs where appropriate.
  • If the person you support does not speak English, you may be able to assist by interpreting what is said. However, the health service can also arrange to get an interpreter.

About confidentiality

All health professionals are legally required to maintain their patient’s confidentiality but there are some exceptions.

If permission is not given for you to be involved you can still provide information to the health professionals, as well as ask for advice and information about your role and what to expect.

If there continues to be significant risk to the person however, the health professional can talk more openly about the situation. The focus of this conversation would then be about what can be done to support and keep the person safe.

If the person is still in your care or they are under 16 and they do not want you involved in their care, the health professional will need to work through this with them.

If you are unsure how confidentiality works in your situation simply ask the health services staff to explain it to you and the person you are supporting, so you both understand how it works.


Experiences with health professionals

People who have attempted suicide – and the people supporting them – have reported a range of experiences in the level of care and concern they have received from health professionals.

Some have found staff supportive and available while others felt staff were distracted, unhelpful and offered little or no time to talk.

How a health professional responds to someone who has attempted suicide will depend on their personal attitude towards suicide and level of skill in responding to suicide attempts. Time pressures within medical settings can also affect the amount of time they can spend with patients.

All health services have systems in place for people to provide feedback. Written information about this process is usually available from the staff or administration team. Alternatively, consider talking to the staff member involved.

 

Mother and adult son facing each other and talking


It is not possible to watch the person you are supporting all the time and that's not often what they want either.




Before going home

Many people are discharged from hospital after a relatively short period of time. If you feel pressure to take the person home or you do not understand why discharge is being recommended, raise your concerns with the doctor as soon as possible.

If you feel that a very high level of support is required, it might be more appropriate for them to stay in hospital for a period of time. It is important to raise these concerns as soon as possible with the person and their doctor.

 

When getting ready to leave hospital it might be useful to know:

  • Where they are planning to go. Perhaps consider making arrangements for them to stay with someone temporarily if they live alone or for someone to stay with them.
  • What sort of support you can provide when they return home.
  • What you should do if you are worried about them.
  • What services can be contacted if you have any immediate concerns.
  • Who you can contact if you would like counselling or support for yourself or others.


In the short–term

The first few days after a suicide attempt can be a stressful time. Often critical issues and questions come up:

  • What happens now?
  • Are they OK?
  • Can I trust them to stay safe?
  • Will it happen again?

There are no guaranteed solutions, but there are several important things you can do to support the person as best you can.

  • Let the person know that they can talk to you about things when they are ready. Be prepared to listen without interrupting.
  • Assist the person to establish a routine with sleeping, meals and exercise to regain a sense of control over their life.
  • Support the person to keep appointments with counsellors and other health professionals.
  • Remove things in and around the house that they could potentially harm themselves with. Let them know why you are doing this and that you will return the items when it is safe to do so.

Offering support

People who have attempted suicide can really benefit from the extra support of the people around them. Support can be offered in different ways and by talking with the person you can identify what would be most useful for them.

Practical support

Practical support might include taking them to appointments, being a regular exercise partner, cooking some meals or perhaps assisting with some household duties. It is also useful to encourage them to use problem-solving and coping skills so that they can begin to consider the many different ways they could approach problems. Assisting the person to source financial support might be useful if they are unable to return to work for a while. This can ease the stress and burden that the person may have about money.

Emotional support

Emotional support includes being available to listen, acknowledging their situation and distress, and supporting them to talk through difficult emotions or thoughts. It is also about encouraging them to seek support from professionals when times are tough or if suicidal thoughts return. It does not mean that you have to understand why they have attempted suicide, it’s about your acceptance of the situation and willingness to support them in their recovery.

Support from others

It can also be useful to think about a support network for the person, rather than just relying on the one support person. Supporting someone after a suicide attempt can be exhausting, physically and emotionally, so sharing this can provide the support that the person needs, while also enabling you to look after your own wellbeing. Together you could create a list of people and the ways they can assist.

Explain your limits

No matter what support you offer it is important that the person has clear expectations about what you can do. This avoids disappointment or conflict. For example, you may want to consider whether you want to be on their 24 hour or the ‘middle-of-the-night’ contact list. There are 24-hour services available to provide support so this might be something that you don’t need to do. Instead, you might be someone who assists with practical tasks and makes time to listen to their concerns regularly through the week.

Encourage attendance at appointments

After a suicide attempt, people are often encouraged to link in with a health professional. This can provide the support and guidance needed for the person to begin to address the feelings or situation that triggered the attempt. It can also assist them in planning and rebuilding the sort of future they want.

Encourage the person you support to attend appointments. Try to ease their concerns, particularly if they are worried about talking about difficult things.

At a practical level you might provide transport or assist them to keep track of appointments.

Finding the right health professional for the person you are supporting can take time. If the person doesn’t like or feel comfortable with the health professional they have been seeing, let them know they have options. Whatever they decide, getting the support they need is likely to be beneficial to their recovery, so they should be encouraged to keep trying until they find someone that suits them.​​

 

Support them to stay safe

It is common for thoughts about suicide and death to return. People find that their suicidal thoughts can return in response to significant stress or tension. 

There are often signs or changes in how someone talks or behaves when they are having suicidal thoughts. By identifying what these might be you can keep a look out for them.

You can also consider how you will respond if you begin to notice these signs or changes in the person that you are supporting. What will you say to them, what will you do and who else can you call?

People who have attempted suicide will often be encouraged by health professionals to prepare a safety plan. A safety plan is a series of steps that can be followed if thoughts about suicide return. If they do not already have one, encourage them to make one.

 

''One thing that helped me when I wasn't well, and with the pressure and guilt I put on myself for not being able to function, was what a nurse said to me, 'If you had a broken leg and you were in hospital, would you feel that guilt about it?' I said 'No'. She said 'If it stops you beating up on yourself, I can bandage your head because you have a broken head.''


Common reactions 

A suicide attempt can often come as a shock. It can be confronting and cause you to think about your own beliefs about life and death, trust, hope, love and control. For some people it can feel like their world has been turned upside down.

You may experience a range of intense and unexpected emotions that can change quickly and unpredictably.

You may feel

  • panicked
  • shocked
  • confused
  • angered
  • betrayed
  • guilty
  • sad.

You might find yourself thinking

  • Why didn’t they tell me they were feeling like this?
  • Was there more I could have done?
  • I didn’t realise they were serious.
  • What am I going to tell other people?
  • Does this mean they have a mental health condition?
  • Did they think about how this would impact others?
  • Will things ever be the same again?

People will respond differently so it is important to remember there is no right or wrong way to react.




Understanding your own reactions

It is important to be aware of your own reactions to a suicide attempt. If you have strong thoughts or feelings about the situation, consider whether you can put these aside while supporting the person. It can be hard to focus on the person’s needs when you are still coming to terms with some very intense emotions yourself.

It is OK to ask someone else to provide support until you are in a better space. This does not mean that you do not care greatly for the person; it just means you might need some time to recover from the experience as well. Alternatively, you can help the person to set up a support network so the responsibility and concern is shared.

The person who has attempted suicide

What they may be thinking or feeling

People who have attempted suicide can experience a range of feelings after their attempt. They might also find that these feelings are conflicting or change rapidly. While others might experience a more restricted range of feelings or describe feeling nothing.

After a suicide attempt, people may feel extreme fatigue, numbness and remorse. While others might feel embarrassed or a sense of guilt. Some people feel joy and relief while others may feel angry and quite hopeless because they have survived.

Why did this happen?

You may never understand why a person felt that suicide was their best option; it is likely that there was a complex range of reasons that led to the attempt.

These overwhelming thoughts and feelings may be in response to stressful life events. Some mental health conditions and medications will also increase the likelihood of experiencing intense thoughts and feelings. However, attempting suicide does not always mean a person has a mental health condition.

Sometimes there appears to be no obvious life events or experiences that help to explain why a person has attempted suicide.

When people were asked to reflect on their situation prior to attempting suicide they identified experiencing a range of different thoughts and feelings such as, ''the situation was so unbearable, I couldn’t think of an alternative and I felt trapped'' or ''there was no other way that I could get away''.

Talking about the attempt 

You may find that the person you support is not able to talk about why they attempted suicide, particularly straight after the attempt. They may not have the words or be ready to talk about it. If they begin to explain what happened, listen and respond without judgment.

Do your best to offer support with care and compassion. If you find it hard to understand or you disagree with their views, try to accept what has happened and move your focus to how you can now support them.

 

Talking about what has happened

Talking to the person

People who have attempted suicide may or may not want to talk about what has happened straight away. Sometimes, they don’t have the words or they might be worried that others will judge them or think less of them. And sometimes,they feel that speaking about what has happened places a burden on others.

You may find it hard to know how to start a conversation with the person about the suicide attempt or what led up to it. Many people worry that they will say the wrong thing. Letting them know you care is a good start.

A short statement like the following may be useful: “I’m so glad you are OK. You don’t have to say anything, but I’m here when you are ready to talk and I want to support you to get through this”. The most important thing to do in the initial stages is to trust one another and work together to help improve the situation. You could suggest that while you don’t have all the answers, you can work out a way forward together.

Helpful tips

  • Listen without judging. It is likely that they are trying to deal with intense feelings ranging from anger, regret, sadness, fear and guilt.
  • While it may be hard to understand, it is important to accept what they are saying.
  • You don’t need to ask probing questions about why they have done this. They will tell you when and if they are able to.
  • Only ask about how they are feeling if you have the time and are emotionally ready to listen.
  • If you have strong feelings or reactions about what has happened, perhaps talk them over with a trusted person or counsellor first.
  • Don’t avoid them because you feel uncomfortable – it can reinforce the sense of stigma. Get some ideas from counselling services about how you can communicate.
  • Remember it is not just what you say, but how you say it. People notice your body language.
  • If you don’t know how to respond to something, be honest and say so.
  • Offer to find information and other resources for them.
  • Be kind to yourself. A suicide attempt is emotionally draining for all involved. Make sure you keep a check on your own mood and seek support when needed.

 

 

Many people worry that they will say the wrong thing. Letting them know you care is a good start.

Supporting someone who is suicidal

"You have to be the pushy friend, and when...If you can see that someone's struggling, I think you gotta remember that it's not about keeping them happy,it's about helping them. Don't underestimate how important supporting someone that needs help is. It's really important. And if you're the person that needs help, don't underestimate how willing people will be to help you."

Talking to others

After things have settled, it is important to talk with the person you are supporting about what to say to others. It can be useful to have a clear agreement about what should be shared and with whom. It might also be worth acknowledging that by sharing some information about what has happened, you may reduce gossip and speculation. Often a short message about what has happened and how they are now coping is enough for most people.

You may find it helpful to identify the words you want to use to let people know about what has happened and how they can support you or the person who has attempted suicide.

For example, “I need to let you know that I’ve recently had a hard time as (name of person) tried to take their own life. You do not need to be worried about me or (name of person), but I would appreciate it if you could…”.


When you are ready it is important to talk about what has happened with people you trust.

Be prepared for how people may react

How people will react to being told about the attempted suicide will vary. Some people may react with concern while others may be quite challenged by the information. For those willing to talk about it, share how you feel and seek their support. For those who are uncomfortable with the conversation acknowledge their discomfort but also explain why it is important for you to talk about it. 

If it’s not working for you, let them know what you need from them. For example:

  • “What I need at this point is someone who can listen to me without telling me what I need to do.”
  • “I’d really appreciate it if we could talk about other things at the moment. I just want to get my mind off it.”

Some people may be overly curious after you have started the conversation or try to offer opinions that you don’t appreciate. You can respond to them by saying “I’d rather not talk about it anymore right now”.

If you are worried that they are suicidal again

If you are worried a person may be suicidal or at risk of harming themselves again, the following steps can be used to guide your response.

Assess the situation

Ask yourself what is making you worry. For example,

– Has their behaviour changed? Are they sleeping a lot more or a lot less? Do they have too much or too little energy? Do they seem sad? Do they have a short temper or cry more than usual?

– Has their thinking changed? Are they negative all the time or are they overly positive? Do they seem to have muddled or fuzzy thoughts? Are they unable to concentrate?

– Have their relationships changed? Have they withdrawn from family and friends?

Talk with a trusted friend or counsellor

Explain why you are worried and ask their opinion.

Have an open and frank discussion with the person

Find a time as soon as possible when you can sit down and talk without distractions.

Discuss any signs you have seen that have worried you

Talk to them about the things you have noticed and find out if they have also noticed any signs that indicate things are not going well for them at the moment (such as changes in mood, insomnia, withdrawal, agitation, etc.).

Discuss their state of mind

If you are worried that they are suicidal, ask the person calmly and directly if they have been thinking about suicide.

Ask them to be honest. Some possible ways to say this include:
“I’ve noticed… (state specific observations) and am worried about how you are and wondering if you have been thinking about suicide?” or perhaps “How have you been feeling lately? You seem to be really withdrawn and I’m worried that things are so bad that you are thinking about killing yourself.”

If they tell you that they want to kill themselves or are thinking of suicide, let them know it is OK to have suicidal thoughts and that they are not alone in having them. Recognise that thoughts about ending their life are signs of the suffering and despair they are feeling. Ask them to tell you more.

Go back to their safety plan and decide together what action to take

If you remain unsure what to do, stay with the person while you contact a telephone crisis support service or relevant local service to seek their advice.


''At first, I definitely didn't think about myself...but after a while, I realised I wasn't coping...It's like a flight when the oxygen masks go down: you have to put the mask on yourself first before you can put it on others.'' Crystal, 27

 

Looking after yourself and looking to the future 

Supporting a person who is suicidal, or has attempted suicide, or is bereaved by suicide, can generate a broad range of feelings. It can be challenging to do but also humbling and rewarding. At times it can be confusing, stressful and even overwhelming.

As with any other time of stress it is essential that you look after yourself emotionally and physically. Staying connected with your friends and family should also be a priority.


 

You may also find information from Finding your way backfor people supporting someone after a suicide attempt, useful for yourself, family member or friend. There is also Finding our way back specifically developed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people after a suicide attempt.

Crisis support

If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include: