How to Handle Repeated Suicide Threats

May 23, 2016 Becky Oberg

Do you know how to handle repeated suicide threats? Princola Shields did not have to die. The 19-year-old mentally ill woman was serving a sentence at Indiana Women's Prison when guards moved her into temporary confinement in a shower stall no bigger than a hall closet, according to the Indianapolis Star. For three hours she screamed for help, begging to know what she'd done wrong, then threatening to kill herself and yelling that she was dying. Guards allegedly told her to shut up and ignored her. She was later found hanging from the shower stall. Cleary, her suicide threats were not handled properly.

Shields made suicide threats frequently and had six suicide attempts on her record. While she was in treatment as a child, she told a doctor it was just a way to get attention. How should a suicide threat be handled then? Is there a right way how to handle repeated suicide threats?

Always Take a Repeated Suicide Threat Seriously

People have all kinds of ways of getting attention. However, very few people use the threat of suicide to get attention, which is why people should always take a suicide threat seriously. If the person is making the threat up, which is unlikely, they need to be taught that they are valued and will always be taken seriously (What Is a Value Judgement?). They also need to be taught healthier ways of seeking attention.

Psychologist David Miller told the Star that all suicide threats should be taken seriously, even the ones the patient says were made up. The Star reports:

When mental health professionals accept a child’s explanation of threatening suicide as a way to get attention, it “tends to minimize” the seriousness of the situation, said Miller, who is also an associate professor of school psychology at University at Albany, State University of New York, and president of the American Association of Suicidology. Anyone who talks about wanting to kill herself or himself is sending a clear message, he said, and the threat should always be treated seriously.

A lot of times when people don't treat it seriously, that simply reinforces the individual's viewpoint that they're not valued.

What Happens When a Suicide Threat Isn't Taken Seriously

Repeated suicide threats may be "just a cry for attention," but what if they're not? Ignoring repeated suicide threats is a risk too great to take. Read this.I nearly died when my repeated suicide threats weren't handled well, so this hits especially close to home.

While in the state hospital system, I was frequently suicidal (Understanding and helping the Suicidal Person). On one occasion, I told the staff I was suicidal and nothing happened. I showed them my note. I told them my plan. Nothing happened. I finally made an attempt, only to be discovered--at which point I said, indifferently, that I'd miscalculated how long it'd take to die and told them saving my life was the worst thing they could have done. The unit psychiatrist said, "We had another borderline on this unit and every other word out of her mouth was 'suicide,' so we just assumed you were the same way."

I can not emphasize enough that a suicide threat, even a repeated suicide threat, should always be taken seriously. It's far better to take a threat seriously and not have it be serious than to ignore a threat and have it be serious. People seldom make these threats up. And if, by a slim chance, they are, they're making a cry for help that needs to be heard. The consequences of not taking a threat seriously are simply too great to risk.

How to Handle Repeated Suicide Threats

The most important thing you can say to someone who is suicidal is, "I value your life and want to help you. What can I do?"

Other important things include:

  • "You must be in a lot of pain to feel that way. How can I help?"
  • "Thank you for sharing that with me; you were very brave. What can I do to help?"
  • "You say you feel like killing yourself to get the pain to stop. What other options do you have and how can I help you find them?"

Most suicidal people don't want to die--they just want the pain to stop and think that death is the best way for that to happen (Avoid Suicide by Looking Forward to the Little Things).

A suicide threat should always be taken seriously because it is so rarely made up. Repeated suicide threats are symptomatic of a severe mental illness, in which case a person needs treatment, not isolation and punishment. That's how to handle repeated suicide threats--take the person seriously, tell them you value them, and help them to find other coping skills in therapy.

You can also find Becky Oberg on Google+, Facebook and Twitter and Linkedin.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2016, May 23). How to Handle Repeated Suicide Threats, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Becky Oberg

Janet Cato
February, 28 2024 at 4:27 pm

I thankful to have found this site as I too have been described as an enabler to my unstable adult child /ren and also tried tough love. It is my eldest son concerning me he still lives with me and I don't mind that but he cannot seem to deal with failure of any kind in life or any normal problem without becoming mental or lately threatening suicide. He is 31 and I find it ridiculous. I tell him if when raising him and his 2 brothers I did the same none of us would be here and how does expect to survive as I know he enjoys life otherwise. Yet he claims he can't do anything. He is handsome and smart and I see no reason for him not t po be successful he just has no self esteem. I just don't understand.

February, 18 2024 at 8:28 pm

I read all theses replies of parents being frustrated or sick of it or spending all their life savings on a child who continues to threaten suicide. My most gut wrenching reply said how long do I have to deal with this? Well, poor disgusting people who call their selves parents! My son committed suicide the anguish I am faced with every day when i awake he never threatened you are so very lucky to have that chance to make those cry in their heads go away but you sit here and complain!! I will gladly trade you spots look at it this way it's probably something you did to make them act the way they do if you don't want to be parents quit having children! i would give anything for my son to give me that threat before he killed himself!

January, 3 2023 at 10:19 pm

My son just turned 40 and is repeatedly threatening suicide. No matter what I suggest, he won’t do it. It’s beginning to feel manipulative and quite frankly, I’m tired of it. You say to take each threat seriously. For how long? It could go on for years, and at that point my own mental health would be in danger. I even asked him what would need to happen for him to not want to kill himself. He said if someone would get me a job and $5,000. I’ve already spent most of my retirement savings on helping him financially, and I can’t anymore. I just don’t have it. This is when the suicide threats started. He turned 40, lost his job, is about to become homeless because he is behind on his rent, and doesn’t have money for food, according to him. In my. non-professional opinion, he doesn’t want to grow up and accept adult responsibility. I’m at my wit’s end with him. I feel like saying to him, either do it or shut up about it and begin to fix what’s wrong in your life. I’ve given him suggestion after suggestion. He wants no part of it. He wants someone to hand it to him. He has been like this most of his life. Thanks for letting me vent. I’m going to call someone tomorrow to get some help for myself and hopefully him. But he says it’s too much work to get counseling and that if I try to call the cops and have him involuntarily committed in a 72 hour hold, he will go somewhere and hide. It’s very frustrating.

Distraught parent
September, 8 2022 at 10:06 am

Everything written by folks dealing with suicidal threats rings a bell with me too. It has become a da**ned-if-you-do or don't scenario. Although depression can trigger suicidal threats, the recipient of those threats is left with "how do I handle this?" and "what if I do the wrong thing?' I have been in therapy for myself, struggling with my behavior towards my loved one who is suffering and everything I have tried, has failed. I am told that I am an enabler for "always trying to help" and that the depressed person needs to take the first step to help himself. And when that person is resistant to talk therapy and/or drug therapy it becomes an impossible situation. As soon as I pull away and put up that boundry, Im criticized for not caring or purposefully sabotaging what he needs. It's a no win situation and I am afraid to completely withdraw my efforts for fear that my loved one might make that ultimate choice to die just to prove how debilitating mental illness can be or perhaps cause me to suffer as he does, in order for me to fully understand how he feels. I once had my loved one picked up by authorities when I received a threat and he was released from the hospital's mental health department that night. Although he agreed to out-patient treatment, it eventually ended by his choice, and then this ugly cycle started all over again. I firmly believe that only the person suffering can help themselves; it has to be a deep commitment to want to live and I have no problem with being the support person. But the brain is such a complex organ and I doubt mental health professionals will ever be able to prescribe a course of action that fits everyone who is suffering. And that's the crux of this who discussion b/c there is so much uncertainty. Whatever we are told to do to help a loved one is not a 1 pill fits all scenario. We are the bystanders of depression and we share common experiences as we deal with someone's suffering. But the person suffering has his own personal experiences and thoughts and getting inside their head is a tough nut to crack. Just because John Doe recovered or made the wrong choice to not live, does not mean it holds true for the rest of us hanging for a positive outcome or solutions. So reading these blogs doesn't really solve my dilemma but it is comforting to know that there are so many others out there who are also suffering with anxiety, stress and confusion as they deal with someone's depression and threats. When I hear my loved one talk about how he will end his life, my heart caves in and I'm lost with how to even reply at times. I hear comments like "I have a right to make a choice and I don't want to be in an institution or on medication. Talk therapy doesn't help and family members refuse to help me too." He is convinced that without family support therapy doesn't work but I understand why family has remained unsupportive b/c they don't want conflict within their homes. So I ask myself, are threats a ploy to manipulate or is it serious information? A suicide attempt has not been attempted after 10 yrs of hearing threats but in the back of my mind I ask if this is the year the attempt will be made and will it be successful? Admittedly, I am on the verge of calling 911 again and if I do it will be my last ditch effort to save him b/c I am so worn out mentally and emotionally. I pray we all find our ground and that the loved one we are desperately trying to help, holds on and makes the right choice/s. for a future.

September, 9 2022 at 10:03 pm

I can see that this situation is weighing heavily on you and appreciate the time you took to share it. That couldn't have been easy. I'm glad to hear that you're in therapy yourself as that's an important part of handling your own emotions when navigating these kinds of situations, which isn't easy at all. One thing I will say is that if you believe your loved one is in danger of hurting themselves, calling 911 is absolutely the right way to go. Know that there's only so much you can do as a parent/loved one, and those are the steps you should focus on taking. It's a scary situation, and the what ifs make it all the more terrifying. I encourage you to keep at it with therapy to learn more coping skills and boundary setting techniques as needed so that you can also protect your own mental health. Setting your own boundaries doesn't mean you don't care, contrary to what others seem to have told you. It just means you're doing what you can to protect your mental wellbeing as well, and there's nothing wrong with that. Never forget your own wellbeing and needs throughout all of it.

Ricky Spanish
July, 4 2022 at 12:30 am

My brother does this frequently to my family, my father died recently and he has gone off the deep end. When he isn't verbally or emotionally abusing someone in the household he is using the threat of suicide to shut down any/all confrontations he starts. It has gotten to the point where everyone in the household goes out of their way to avoid him because there is always a problem, he wakes up angry. I would chalk this up to my father passing but he has been doing this for years, going a little harder once our father passed. So far ignoring him seems to be the most effective, I do not think he will actually harm himself, it's just a useful tool in his bag of tricks when he wants to end a conversation or his violent threats are not taken seriously. It is wild, I'm not sure what else to do. He keeps saying he will move out because we are horrible people who have ruined his life or if that does not work out he will kill himself. I doubt this is very helpful, but hopefully this makes someone else feel less alone if they are dealing with a similar situation at home. This person also refuses to speak to a therapist or counselor, he thinks he knows everything and I guess when you are blowing up on an entire household daily, you must have it all figured out. Hell is other people, truer words have never been spoken.

January, 23 2022 at 9:21 pm

I also thought this article would be about coping skills to handle repeated suicide threats. I have a friend who lives hours from me and has told me many times about suicidal thoughts and self-harm behaviors over the years, and I always take it seriously. What I don't know is how to handle the emotional strain this causes me. I've had suicide attempts myself, so it's not that I don't have sympathy for his situation, but I don't know how to cope with having to serve as a suicide hotline at a moment's notice.

September, 24 2021 at 1:27 pm

My loved one has been calling me today threatening suicide. I feel that she is trying to emotionally manipulate me into getting what she wants. I have had her "observed" several times in the past couple of years. They usually only want to hold her for 72 hours max. I know that this is no where near the amount of time she needs.
I am at my wits end. I know if I give in to her she will just use me up. But, I am afraid that if I don't she will pull it off. In this time of cv19 I am pretty sure it is even more difficult to get her in to be "observed". I need to go to work in a few minutes so I don't have a lot of time to go into details. But it seems like she is trying to consume me

January, 23 2019 at 10:37 am

I've been dealing with this from my daughter for years. And again today. As I arrived at work I got a text from her. I left work to ty to help, but she lives 1200 miles away. The few people she has there say it would do no good to go to her, they said she is emotionally blackmailing me, and she is fine, well for a bipolar borderline refusing to take meds that don't get her high.

August, 13 2018 at 1:02 pm

My sympathy to all those who have a loved one making repeated threats. With my Mom it was usually done in a brief dissociated rage. She made such threats every few months for 25 years before finally doing it. It seemed to comfort her to know she could complete an act that seemed to represent total control. My siblings and i had little idea how to handle it since she refused all psychological treatment.

Jim Gibson
June, 25 2018 at 6:20 am

Never ignore a person's suicidal threats. Lend a helping hand. Don't instill more guilt and judgment. Listen and care.

Ashanti Daniels
June, 6 2018 at 3:04 pm

I needed help with my daughter. She real quickbtobsay the word suicide

John Doe
November, 20 2017 at 1:35 pm

Bad advice for kids of narcissistic/borderline parents, where suicide is just another manipulation tool.
Remarkably bad.

May, 23 2016 at 6:58 pm

The problem is that there is plenty of apathy and virtually no empathy. Mentally ill people are pretty much on their own. Need to really learn survival and slowly work your way to happiness. It is a long road. Sorry to read and hear almost daily of those that can't find themselves and eventually die. I must listen more.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 30 2018 at 1:53 am

Some of us it happens every single day. You never know when it is real and when it is not. This article is not that helpful, i'd rather you tell me when to see whether it is a real threat or not. I have someone in my life with borderline personality and to get every single thing she wants she threatens us with her life. I used to try and help but it got exhausting because she finished up all my money and i almost feel nothing because it happens so often. How do we as loved ones cope? And know when to draw boundaries because one cant always be there to assist. It is affecting every single aspect of my life I've been taking every threat seriously and it has only made me more drained and i can't enjoy my life at all due to the fact that I have to constantly think what if she was serious. I don't live close to her so I just get threatening messages and honestly on a daily basis to respond to every message it is not realistic at all.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 19 2018 at 5:00 am

I’m so glad I’m not alone in this because this has become my life as well and no matter what I do it is always the wrong way to handle it. I have no idea how to handle this anymore it’s consumed my life and I don’t know what I can possibly do more.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 24 2018 at 10:02 am

I have only just seen this but it is exactly what I am dealing with at the moment. My daughter has borderline personality disorder and has spent her life threatening suicide when she feels things are not how she wants them. She finds it difficult to accept any responsibility when things go wrong, and has drained all of my savings by having to bale her out of debt. If I try tough love she says I make her feel worthless, but she also shuns the help she can get from professionals because she doesn't want to commit to treatment. It is a nightmare, my family life is in tatters and I just want to help but can't anymore.

August, 7 2018 at 5:36 am

The same happens with my brother.He is always complaining about everything and wants money more than we can afford, otherwise he will hang himself, refuses violently to seek help, but takes sleeping pills.He threatens everyday and it's torturing, we try to help and listen but all he does is yelling and complaining about everything that doesn't make sense.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 16 2024 at 8:40 am

I agree it just shows so many people who need help. Manipulation or not, they are mentally disturbed. But if they are a adult you cannot make them get ttreatment.a minor you can It's even worse when they don't recognize they need help and are saying it's every one else who is the problem! Even when you tell probation they need help they don't seem to do a thing. When in fact they can make it mandatory! But they don't they just suggest the person get evaluated. Or will eventually violate them and send them to jail. Which would make it worse. So what do u do when you r already asked authorities to help this person! Even when a counselor tells them they need a psychiatric evaluation but the person doesn't get it done? So where the hell do you go from here?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 13 2018 at 1:18 pm

I work in a voluntary supported accommodation setting and we have had several men constantly threatening suicide when their needs are not met or when they are not happy with the way things are going. I'm fortunate that I'm not family or as the comments suggest below I would be at my wits end. I think the steps above are useful and that is to listen, understand, ask what can you do to help then explain that what they do is their choice. I would then contact your emergency mental health team and stress that they are a high risk to themselves in order to get them to carry out a mental health assessment. In UK it's normally your hospitals liaison psychiatry dept. You need to accept it's not your fault and always seek professional help to put that buffer between it being your responsibility. Look at what local voluntary agencies can do to help..If substance misuse goes hand in hand with this then I often find it's more difficult especially drinkers. Some drug and alcohol services have family support meetings Sometimes you need to back away to protect your own mental health and family.

Leave a reply