Families play a crucial role in supporting people who are suicidal

"My ability to support my family member in crisis or just the ongoing condition is only as good as my ability to look after myself," – Kate*, a local carer for her son who has depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Families play a crucial role in supporting people who are having suicidal thoughts. It’s important that we acknowledge the role of family members and carers, and make sure we’re supporting them as well.

Those caring for someone with suicidality often feel isolated and unsupported. "My parents have both passed away. My siblings are somewhat estranged and do not comprehend the challenges we face," said Kate.

Kate encourages the community to gain a better understanding of mental health conditions and suicide prevention to increase people’s insight into what it’s really like for carers and those they’re caring for.

"I can’t emphasise enough how important this is for carers," she said. "As is often the case for carers of people with mental health conditions or suicidal thoughts, social connections can be weakened, with friends not being fully informed of the difficulties and thus not really understanding.

"Keeping my own life as solid and stable as possible is crucial, so I need to stay interested in hobbies and creative pursuits, do meaningful work and stay as healthy as possible. This helps me foster positive relationships with people in the community as well as my son."

Dr Alex Hains, Regional Manager of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, agrees that families play a crucial role.

"While most services are only available during business hours, families are on call 24/7. Families often work incredibly hard to support their loved ones to acknowledge there is a problem, and then work even harder to help them get professional help for it," said Dr Hains.

Dr Hains said family members are often the best-placed to notice when someone isn’t their usual self.

"Family members might notice their loved one isn’t sleeping or eating as much as usual (or far more than usual), or not enjoying the things they used to enjoy. These changes should be seen as ‘flags’."

There are some simple, safe steps that family members can take to identify and support a loved one who is struggling.

"It could be as simple as signing up to do the Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) training, a one-hour online course for just $10, which will help you recognise warning signs for suicide," said Dr Hains.

"QPR will give you with the skills and confidence to talk to a loved one about their suicidal thoughts and connect them with professional care."

There are some other practical things families can do to help prevent suicides.

"With 68% of suicide deaths occurring in the Illawarra Shoalhaven occur within the home, we encourage families to have open and direct conversations about how to support each other, particularly when they’re in crisis. Planning ahead for these times is really worthwhile. This isn’t about trying to control everything or take decisions away from people who are struggling. It’s about doing what you can to keep them safe while they’re in crisis," said Dr Hains.

A number of resources are available locally for families supporting someone with suicidality or mental health issues, such as ARAFMI, who facilitate regular support groups for family and carers and have recently published a Carer’s Crisis Manual to help guide carers through the particularly difficult times. The Manual is available for download at www.arafmiillawarra.org.au or you can contact ARAFMI on 4283 3993.

If you or someone you know needs support now, please call Lifeline 24/7 on 13 11 14 or click here to view other support services.

*not her real name