Holding Space: Understanding and Supporting Loved Ones Struggling with Suicidal Thoughts
Loved ones who are struggling with suicidal thoughts require empathy, warmth, and an understanding of how to offer support. For many of us, the idea of a loved one grappling with suicidal thoughts is a heart-wrenching and complex challenge to navigate. As friends or family members, it’s crucial that we remain compassionate, patient, and proactive.
Holding space for someone in such profound distress requires a delicate blend of attentiveness and discretion. It means to be there for them physically, mentally, and emotionally without trying to change or “fix” the person or the situation. You’re there to support them and only intervene when necessary.
In this blog article, we’ll discuss how you can approach conversations, provide support and seek professional help if someone you know and care for is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Understanding Suicidal Ideation
Suicidal ideation is a term used to describe the thoughts, ideas, and considerations a person might have about ending their own life. While it’s a topic that many find challenging to approach, understanding its complexity is crucial for offering support, care and intervention.
Suicidal thoughts can arise due to a multitude of reasons, and recognizing the common emotions tied to these thoughts is an essential step toward offering support and seeking professional help.
Individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts may grapple with a range of emotions, including but not limited to:
- Overwhelming pain and hopelessness. People may feel trapped in their pain, seeing no way out of their current suffering. The weight of emotional distress can lead to a sense of hopelessness, fueling thoughts of ending their lives.
- Unbearable sadness. Deep sadness and despair can cloud one’s perspective, making it hard to envision a future where things could improve.
- Feelings of isolation and loneliness. Isolation can intensify feelings of loneliness and despair, making individuals feel disconnected from others and the world around them. Without social support, these feelings may become more pronounced. In this psychoeducation video, Neuroscience of Traumatic Grief & Loss: Separation Anxiety & Suicidal Thoughts with Dr Kate Truitt, learn why grief can profoundly alter our brain’s neurobiology, impacting our mind and body system, as well as our emotional connection to the world.
- Guilt and shame. Guilt over past actions or shame about perceived failures can intensify emotional distress and contribute to suicidal thoughts.
- Feelings of worthlessness. Believing that one is a burden or that the world would be better off without them is a common sentiment among those contemplating suicide.
Suicide Awareness & Prevention Month: Understanding a Brain in Crisis
In this psychoeducation video, gain more insight about the brain in crisis and learn how to act if it happens to us or a loved one. So often, when people are experiencing suicidal considerations, it’s met with a sense of panic, fear, and helplessness about not knowing how to help this individual. For people that are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it can be terrifying.
The Pillars of Holding Space
When someone we care about is going through a challenging time, our first instinct is often to rush in and help, to offer advice, or to try and solve their problems. However, what they might truly need from us is for us to simply ‘hold space’ for them. But what does that mean, and how can we do it effectively?
Let’s explore the three pillars of holding space: active listening, compassionate response, and presence and patience.
1. Active Listening
Active listening is the foundation for holding space. It is the practice of fully engaging with what your loved one is saying, without distractions or interruptions. When you actively listen, you show your loved one that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are important and valued.
To be an effective active listener:
- Give your undivided attention: Focus on your loved one and eliminate distractions. Maintain eye contact, and show through your body language that you are fully present.
- Be non-judgmental: Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. Suspend any personal opinions or biases and create a judgment-free zone.
- Reflect back: Repeat or paraphrase what your loved one has said to ensure understanding. This demonstrates that you are actively listening and validates their feelings.
- Ask open-ended questions: Encourage your loved one to expand on their thoughts and feelings by asking open-ended questions. This shows genuine interest and invites deeper conversation.
2. Compassionate Response
The words we use have immense power. When someone confides in us, the last thing they want is to feel judged or dismissed. Phrases like “You’ll get over it” or “Others have it worse” might be said with good intentions but can inadvertently minimize their feelings.
Here are some examples of affirming and reassuring statements:
- “I’m here for you, no matter what.”
- “You are not alone in this. We will get through it together.”
- “It takes incredible strength to share your feelings. I admire your courage.”
- “Your emotions are valid, and I’m here to listen without judgment.”
- “I can’t fully understand your pain, but I’m here to support you.”
By using these compassionate responses, you validate your loved one’s emotions, creating a safe space for them to express themselves openly.
3. Presence and Patience
In a world that is constantly rushing and where multi-tasking is celebrated, merely taking the time to be with someone stands out as a powerful act of love and compassion. The significance of presence lies in its unspoken message – “I am here with you, in this moment, through your pain.”
Dr. M. Scott Peck’s observation underscores this concept. He wrote, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” True listening, in this context, doesn’t only pertain to hearing words but also tuning in to the unspoken emotions, the pauses, the sighs, and the silent tears. When we genuinely listen, we open ourselves to understanding the depth of another’s experience.
When someone shares their struggles with us, they aren’t always handing us a problem to solve. Sometimes, they’re sharing a part of their journey, seeking understanding and empathy. In these moments, the most valuable thing we can do is to sit beside them, offering our silent strength and support.
It’s essential to discern when our loved ones need solutions and when they just need us to share in their moment of vulnerability. Offering presence and patience can often be the most potent remedy, allowing them to feel seen, heard, and valued.
How Different Factors Contribute to Having Suicidal Thoughts
By knowing how and why different factors can contribute to a loved one having suicidal thoughts, we can better support, empathize with and understand them.
External influences refer to things outside of ourselves, such as relationship problems, financial difficulties, or a history of trauma. These external factors can have a significant impact on our mental and emotional well-being. When we face traumatic events or ongoing stressors, they can overwhelm our ability to cope, leaving us feeling stuck and overwhelmed. It can become incredibly challenging to see a way forward or imagine a positive future, which can lead to the development of suicidal thoughts.
Some examples of external factors are:
- Social pressures: The pressure to conform, to achieve certain life milestones, or even to present oneself in a particular manner can be burdensome. The fear of judgment or the weight of expectations can lead to feelings of inadequacy, escalating emotional distress.
- Bullying: Experiencing bullying can lead to feelings of isolation, shame, and self-loathing. This emotional trauma can be deeply internalized, contributing to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
- Peer pressure: Wanting to fit in or be accepted by peers can be intense. The failure to meet this perceived standard can lead to internal turmoil and a feeling of isolation.
- Financial strain: Economic hardships, whether sudden or prolonged, can give rise to feelings of desperation, helplessness, and vulnerability. The fear of being unable to provide or the embarrassment of financial dependency can contribute to suicidal ideation.
- Challenging life events: Traumatic events such as job loss, divorce, or personal betrayals can be a tipping point. The accompanying feelings of loss, failure, or grief can overwhelm an individual’s emotional coping mechanisms.
On the other hand, internal struggles focus on the role of mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. These internal factors can play a significant role in suicidal ideation as well. Chemical imbalances in the brain, genetic factors, and environmental stressors can all contribute to the development of mental health disorders, which in turn increase the risk of having suicidal thoughts.
Internal factors may be:
- Mental health disorders: Conditions like depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder can intensify internal despair. These disorders can skew perceptions, making solutions seem out of reach and problems insurmountable.
- Emotional pain and hopelessness: Chronic feelings of sadness, guilt, or emotional pain can trap an individual in a cycle of negative self-perception, where they see no end to their suffering.
- Interpretation of external events: How someone perceives and internalizes external events significantly affects their emotional state. For instance, losing a job can be interpreted as a temporary setback by some but as a catastrophic failure by others.
Media and Pop Culture
The influence of media and pop culture on suicidal thoughts is a complex topic that has been studied extensively. While it is challenging to draw definitive conclusions, research suggests that media and pop culture can have both positive and negative effects on individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts.
On one hand, media and pop culture can play a positive role by raising awareness, destigmatizing mental health issues, and providing messages of hope and recovery. Stories that showcase individuals overcoming suicidal crises or share messages of hope may have a beneficial effect on reducing suicidal ideation in some individuals. Social media and online communities can also serve as a platform for people to seek support and connect with others who may be experiencing similar struggles.
On the other hand, exposure to certain types of media content, such as graphic portrayals of suicide or glamorization of self-harm, can potentially have a negative influence. Research has shown that media coverage of suicide can lead to an increase in suicide rates, known as the “Werther effect” or copycat suicides. It is important for media outlets and pop culture influencers to handle these topics responsibly and adhere to guidelines that promote safety and provide resources for help.
Moreover, social media can have mixed effects on individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts. While it may provide a space for seeking support, it can also expose individuals to harmful content or trigger comparison, leading to negative impacts on mental health and well-being. It is crucial for individuals to be mindful of their social media usage and seek professional help when needed.
Resources and Assistance
Suicidal thoughts are heavy, overwhelming, and challenging, both for the individual experiencing them and for those trying to help. By holding space and offering genuine support, you’re taking a significant step towards making a difference. Every life is precious, and with compassion, understanding, and timely intervention, it’s possible to guide a loved one towards hope and healing.
But sometimes, as the support system of those going through something difficult like suicidal ideation, it may also affect our well-being. This is why we must also prioritize self-care so we can regulate our emotions through these challenging times. Because we need this to be able to provide the guidance and support our loved ones. Learn more about this by listening to the full Choose Love Podcast Episode titled #75 Dr. Kate Truitt – “Healthy brains mean a healthy humanity” with Scarlett Lewis, founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement.
This is one of the reasons why I wrote the book Healing in Your Hands: Self-Havening Practices to Harness Neuroplasticity, Heal Traumatic Stress, and Build Resilience, so we can equip not only ourselves but be able to hold space for others as we heal the past, create the present and build the future we want. Within its pages are tools and resources you can use for your self-healing journey.
And at the Trauma Counseling Center of Los Angeles, we recognize the value of holding space for loved ones struggling with suicidal thoughts. It can be an emotionally challenging and overwhelming experience to navigate such conversations, and we want you to know that you are not alone. If you need help, contact us today.
Here are additional suicide prevention resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
The Trevor Project – LGBTQ Suicide Hotline: 1-866-488-7386
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2019). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States.
Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. T. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine, 44(16), 3361-3363.
Joiner, T. E., Van Orden, K. A., Witte, T. K., & Rudd, M. D. (2009). The interpersonal theory of suicide: Guidance for working with suicidal clients. American Psychological Association.
Lancet Psychiatry. (2016). Suicide: a preventable public health crisis.