NOTE: I am not a trained psychological professional. Take my advice with that grain of salt.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US. Despite this, many Americans don’t know how to react if a loved one tells them they are suffering from suicidal thoughts. It’s difficult for folks who are suffering from suicidal ideations to open up about their thoughts. And if a person reacts poorly to them revealing something so vulnerable, it makes it less likely they will reach out for help when they need it.
Ask them if they made a plan.
There are differing severities of suicidality. Most people never get past the unpleasant and debilitating thoughts. If they have made a plan, or if they think they want to go through with it, gently suggest that they should check themselves into a hospital. They won’t want to go, especially if they have been there before. Psychiatric wings of hospitals are unpleasant places with no freedom. But suggest to them that they may not be safe alone. Also suggest that they are talking to you about it now, which is a small sign that they do not actually want to go through with it.
If they don’t want to talk to you, suggest they call/text a hotline.
Your friend may be embarrassed to talk to you, but they might be willing to talk to a stranger.
Ask what they think they need.
They may not know, but it’s helpful for them to know that you care enough to ask. If they know exactly what they need, believe them. Unless they are hysterical — which is rarer than you’d probably think — they have thought about their depression more than you have. I promise.
Let them cry.
They may start crying while they talk to you. The best thing you can do is not make a big deal out of it. Don’t say “don’t cry.” Don’t touch them in an attempt to comfort. Don’t even hand them a tissue. Let them ask for the tissue. Let them cry with silence between the two of you. Don’t try to talk over the tears. They may not want to speak while they are crying. They may be embarrassed for crying. Just let it happen.
Don’t try to fix anything.
Your first impulse may be to try to fix what your friend is telling you is the problem. This attempt to fix things may overwhelm them. It could also make them feel like a burden (now they’re a problem to solve.) Aim to understand where they are coming from rather than try to fix anything. This interaction isn’t about trying to fix them, it’s about sitting with them in their darkness. Just let the problem exist. Offer your friend validity in their struggle.
Ask if anything triggered their thoughts.
Asking if there was a trigger may encourage your friend to take a moment and think about what led them to this point of crisis. Triggers can be days or even weeks old and small little things built up over that time (think a thousand paper cuts.) To understand what can be a trigger, a non-comprehensive list includes: A person with an eating disorder seeing their naked body; a really bad day at work where the individual made a lot of mistakes; an off-hand comment someone made to them; being exposed to insensitive media.
Try to stay with them as long as they need you to.
While I know this is taxing on you, being alone is really detrimental to a suicidal person. Loneliness allows for the suicidal thoughts to fester and expand. If another person is with them, it serves as a much needed distraction. If you can’t physically be with them, check in when you can. A small gesture, like a text or DM, can mean all the difference.
A note about calling the police.
It’s possible that the police can escalate the situation, especially if your friend is a person of color. The police officer that responds may not be equipped to handle a mental health crisis. Remember, police are who you call when you want an armed response. I would only call the police if your friend is in the act of hurting themselves or credibly threatening to hurt themselves or someone else. Please know that calling the police on someone who is suicidal will, at the very least, result in that person being hospitalized.