What I Should Have Said to the Man I Stopped from Jumping Off a Bridge
It’s a scenario nobody wants to find themselves in, but experts have tips on how to talk to a person in crisis
Several years ago, I was walking across a bridge in central London with a friend when something caught my eye. A man who looked to be in his early twenties was standing very close to the edge. It was only as I got closer that I realized he was on the wrong side of the barrier. He was going to jump.
What happened next is a blur. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t be able to grab him if he fell, because of where he was balanced. Several other people had noticed him, too, and one woman took his arm and began to ask him what was wrong. I took hold of his other arm until some men passing by stopped to hold the young man from behind. His position made it impossible to drag him down without risk of him slipping over the edge.
We asked his name and told him that we understood he was in pain. We told him that we would get him help. He didn’t say anything, he just cried.
My friend, flanked by horrified onlookers, called the police. Eventually several officers came and managed to get the man down. It was late and I was exhausted when I finally headed home, but I couldn’t sleep at all — I just replayed the incident in my mind, wondering whether I could have said or done more.
“He didn’t say anything, he just cried.”
Seeing firsthand the utter despair of someone ready to die by suicide was deeply upsetting. It is, however, not rare. Deaths by suicide in the U.K. increased by 11.8% last year to 6,507, according to the Samaritans, a U.K. suicide hotline organization. In the United States, the suicide rate has risen dramatically in recent years, especially in rural areas, reaching a 75-year peak in 2017, the last year of available data from the Centers for Disease Control. Worldwide, close to 800,000 people die by suicide every year, the World Health Organization reports.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone considering suicide, particularly in the heat of the moment. It’s a scenario nobody wants to find themselves in, but experts offer some guidelines on how best to talk to a person in crisis.
Make them feel understood
“It is most important for the person to feel understood and cared about, and to not feel like they are causing shock, distress, or negative judgments,” says psychologist E. David Klonsky, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies suicide behavior. “So a starting point could be to say kindly and sincerely: ‘Hi there. I wanted to check if everything is okay’. If no response, ‘May I talk with you?’ If it becomes clear they are potentially suicidal, it could be possible to help them feel understood with just a few words.”
Broaching the topic in the first place can be daunting, says Ruth Sutherland, CEO of the Samaritans, and herself a hotline volunteer. “Starting a conversation can seem to be the hardest thing in the world,” she says, but it’s okay if you’re not an expert. “Listening can make all the difference for someone who may be feeling suicidal.”
Acknowledging the feelings of hopelessness that multiple studies have found in suicidal people can also help, Klonsky adds: “So one could say. ‘I get the sense you are in overwhelming pain, and feel hopeless that there is a way out.’ Feeling understood can be the opposite of feeling alone and hopeless.”
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the U.S. suicide-prevention organization SAVE, says it is important to show genuine care and concern when talking to someone.
“Express there is hope, treatment works, and recovery is possible,” he says. “Offer to help get them to help and stay with them. Don’t leave them alone until they are safe.”
And let them talk about what they’re going through, Reidenberg says: “Listen without judgment, and don’t compare you or your past to theirs,” he says. “Let them know others have survived and they can too.”
Connect them with the services they need
If you are concerned about someone you know, reach out to them. “Let the person know you care about them, are open to listening, and want to be helpful,” Klonsky says.
Sutherland recommends several questions that may be useful to ask:
- Have you talked to anyone else about this?
- Would you like to get some help?
- Would you like me to come with you?
Of course, despite your best efforts and intentions, your intervention may play out in unexpected ways, Sutherland says. Still, it’s better to try than it is to do nothing. “There is no evidence that striking up a conversation will make the situation worse. And there’s no perfect way to make an intervention. Just do your best.”
But don’t feel you have to go it alone. Most countries have suicide phone hotlines that operate 24/7, and these can be essential lifelines.
In the United States, for confidential support available 24/7 for everyone in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255. The organization also offers a comprehensive guide to helping someone who may be suicidal, called #BeThe1To.
In the U.K., you can call the Samaritans for free from a landline or cell phone at 116 123. You can also email email@example.com or find your nearest branch & opening hours at www.samaritans.org. Suicide.org also maintains a list of hotlines in countries around the world.
Many organizations also offer text and online options. For example, the Crisis Text Line offers a texting service in the United States, Canada, the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and South Africa.