While some people who consider suicide do so fleetingly or only once in their lives, others experience these thoughts ongoing or off and on over time. Suicidal thoughts can burden people and hold them hostage. Experiencing these thoughts is to experience “absolute darkness, hopelessness, pain,” and nothing matters but stopping that pain. As friends and caregivers, we may feel at a loss to help or support people with these thoughts; we may feel that taking our loved one to the emergency room is our only option, that crisis medical support is necessary.
If the person at risk of suicide is in immediate crisis, the emergency room is an appropriate level of care. Otherwise, co-developing a safety plan is the best way forward.
What is a safety plan?
A safety plan is a document that supports and guides someone when they are experiencing thoughts of suicide, to help them avoid a state of intense suicidal crisis. Anyone in a trusting relationship with the person at risk can help draft the plan; they do not need to be a professional.
When is a safety plan written?
A safety plan is written when a person is not experiencing intense suicidal thoughts. It may be written after a suicidal crisis, but not during, as at this time an individual can become overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts and confusion and may not be able to think clearly. A safety plan is written when a person has hope for life, or even can consider the possibility of life, so that they can identify their reasons for living, and positive actions they can take to prevent their thoughts from becoming intense and overwhelming.
Why does it work?
A safety plan is an assets-based approach designed to focus on a person’s strengths. Their unique abilities are identified and emphasized so they can draw on them when their suicidal thoughts become intense. The goal is to draw upon their strengths during subsequent recovery and healing processes (Xie, 2013). Personal resources are another integral safety plan component. Drawing on strengths is the entry-level activity; reaching out for help may also become necessary (Xie, 2013; Bergmans, personal communication, 2019).
When implemented, safety plans become self-strengthening. For people who experience recurring suicidal thoughts or crises, one strength becomes knowing they have weathered the storm before and have navigated their way out.
Learn more about Safety Planning with Centre for Suicide Prevention’s toolkit: Safety plans to prevent suicide.
Centre for Suicide Prevention. (2019). Safety plans to prevent suicide. Retrieved from Safety plans to prevent suicide
Xie, H. (2013). Strengths-based approach for mental health recovery. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, 7(2), 5-10. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3939995