What to Do When Your Brother or Sister is Suicidal: How to Support a Sibling in Crisis
Owing to complicated family dynamics, it might be difficult to recognize the signs of suicidal behavior. But understanding that there are common signs even for your sister or brother, you can be a source of support. The unique understanding that siblings have with each other can help you talk to them about receiving professional help and treatment.
Rebekah and her brother Scott had what you could call a typical sibling relationship. There were times they got along great: a history of shared experiences, the inside jokes developed on catastrophic family vacations, and the childhood memories housed under the same roof led to easy conversation in a shared language. Of course, there were times when they didn’t get along, too. Normal rivalries and jealousies led to grudges. Rebekah never got over the feeling her brother got more attention, which is why when he started to exhibit symptoms of depression and signs of suicidal tendencies, she initially overlooked and dismissed them.
When a brother or sister is suicidal, we often have difficulty knowing how to react, or how to interpret their behavior as an autonomous individual in need of help. But many times, the sibling relationship can be crucial in getting people the help they need.
Once she realized that something was truly wrong and that Scott’s pain was real, Rebekah quickly stopped dismissing his subtle cries for help and became his guide, his rock, and his strength. She understood him as a person, and used that shared language of Saturday cartoons and biking around the neighborhood and telling ghost stories under covers when their parents were fighting to connect with him.
When a sibling is in crisis, your unique connection may be the most important one of all.
Recognizing the Signs When a Brother or Sister is Suicidal
The sibling relationship is perhaps the most complex one we have to navigate. They are almost certainly the closest people in your life whom you did not choose. You grow up together and will always be part of each other’s lives in one way or another.
Of course, sometimes that closeness can lead to difficult dynamics. There’s the sibling who is the favorite, and they are resented, and there is the one who no one really understands and who is overlooked. The thing is, in just about every family, every kid assumes they are the overlooked one, and all the other siblings are favored.
That’s part of life, but it is a part that can linger on for decades. That’s why it can sometimes be hard to recognize when a brother or sister is suicidal. Their behaviors and actions are filtered through a lens often clouded with suspicion and resentment, even if it is entirely sublimated. You might think they are indulging a facetious condition (even though that, too, is a disorder which needs treatment).
It’s easy to just tell a family member to “get over it,” but that’s ultimately not helpful. The important thing to do if you think a brother or sister might be suicidal is to take a step back and look at their actions not from the lens of your own childhood, but through the reality of their current situation. Here are a few warning signs to which you should pay attention:
- Changes in behavior. This includes withdrawing from family and social circles, alterations in personal interactions, and loss of interest in activities.
- Direct or indirect verbal expressions. When siblings say “I wish I were dead” or “Things would be better without me,” don’t just think they are being dramatic. They may mean it.
- Self-harm. This can include anything from abuse of drugs and alcohol, to rapidly gaining or losing weight, to self-mutilation.
- Prior suicide attempts. This is, of course, an obvious tell, but we often dismiss unsuccessful suicide attempts as a call for attention. In fact, they are exactly that—they are a way of signaling to others that the person is in pain and needs help.
- Making final arrangements. Obsessively talking about a will, giving away valuable possessions, preparing people for life after them is often a sign of suicidal thoughts.
These can be hard to recognize in a sibling, because over the years you have probably seen every aspect of their behavior at one time or another, and can chalk anything up to—as Rebekah would put it—“Scott being Scott”. But it is important to look beyond your assumptions and recognize the actual problems they are having and the pain they are feeling.
There are some possible genetic or demographic possibilities for a sibling with suicidal behavior. Studies have shown that younger siblings are more likely to be suicidal. But remember that everyone can be, which means that everyone might be called on to be a source of support.
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Becoming a Source of Support For Your Sibling
So what can you do to support your loved one? How can you help? How can you cut through the negative family dynamics to bring out the positive? Unsurprisingly, it starts with listening.
- Ask if you can talk. Show that you notice what they are going through. Tell them that you have recognized they have been changing. Demonstrate that you actually care.
- Listen to your sibling. One thing that most suicidal people feel is that no one cares about them, and so it doesn’t matter if they live or die. Just approaching your sibling and offering to talk is important—as long as you are prepared to properly listen.
- Be patient. Not everyone wants to talk right away. There may be pushback or even anger. But continuing to be there demonstrates true commitment.
- Don’t judge or be angry. The last thing anyone needs is to be told that they are acting badly or letting anyone down. That’s part of the problem. Being open to your sibling, and letting them know that their feelings are valid and not a source of shame, can help to establish further trust and communication.
- Don’t agree to keep it a secret. While respecting their privacy is important, remember that you aren’t a trained health professional. Get advice from people who know what they are doing. Talk to other friends or loved ones who can support you, since this is an emotional toll on you as well. And prepare your sibling for help. You are a valuable source of love and support, but do not try to take on the burden of their pain alone. You owe it to yourself—and to your sibling—to ensure they have all the support they need to get through this, and that includes expert help.
- Talk to your sibling about seeking treatment. This is the end goal of establishing trust. They need to be able to follow your advice because they know that you have their best interests in mind, and that you love them. Showing that you love them, and that you don’t judge them, helps open them to the knowledge that they will be met with love and acceptance when getting help.
The Importance of Professional Help For a Sibling in Crisis
Rebekah worked together with her brother to get him the help he needed. For Scott, that meant residential care in a facility with trained and compassionate experts. It meant intensive and rigorous counseling, both in groups and as an individual. It meant bringing in more family, which at first scared Scott, but the trust he and Rebekah established helped make that possible—and, ultimately, productive.
In the end, that’s what it all comes down to—establishing a bond that might have been frayed over the years, that was forged in love and resentment and experience and tempered through the long years of life. Few people know each other better than siblings. As kids, you played together and fought with each other and shared and broke one another’s toys. You’ve been at weddings and been there after divorces. You’ve passed clothes back and forth and worried about your parents’ health over coffee. Now, you can be there when your brother or sister is suicidal. You can reach out again, take them by the hand like you did at the zoo or the first day of school, remind them that you love them, and walk with them to get the help they need.
In the event of a crisis, please call an emergency service such as 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) immediately.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to healing.