What if a Stranger Online Tells You They’re Suicidal?

What if a stranger online tells you they're suicidal?

I was reading an article on Medium recently entitled Please Don’t Email Me About Suicide. The author was saying that when she has written before about suicide, she got emails from readers who were suicidal. I agreed with some, but not all, of what she said, so I thought I would unpack it a bit.

First off, I was a bit surprised—I’ve never gotten any kind of direct contact like that. Anyway, the author explains that “In the past, I’ve written thousands of words in response, I’ve had conversations lasting months, I’ve stayed up all night trying to support people on the phone.” Huh.


I guess we all make our choices around the boundaries we want to establish, in regular life and online. There was one instance last year where I was looser than I meant to be around boundaries with someone who was regularly emailing me asking for help about some things. It ended up snowballing way out of control, and I was getting bombarded with an email storm. I ended up breaking off contact, and it was definitely a lesson learned. It’s hard when it’s a sensitive subject matter, but I think establishing boundaries early on works better than waiting until something has grown into a shitstorm.

AFSP - if you're feeling suicidal, you are not alone

In terms of the author’s basic point, I agree that it’s not the best idea to contact a random stranger and tell them you’re suicidal at that specific moment. To borrow from Seinfeld, that’s a big matzo ball to be lobbing into a stranger’s court.

Emotional labour?

The author of this article took on that issue like this: “When you contact a stranger about your problems, big or small, you are asking them to carry out emotional labour for them. You are asking them to do work you can’t or won’t do. You are externalizing your emotions and shirking responsibility for them.”

Starting from “won’t do” is where the wheels start to fall off for me. Things get pretty desperate when it comes to suicidal ideation, and I don’t think reaching out is a question of not doing emotional labour. As for externalizing emotions, I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe expressing to someone else how you’re feeling. I don’t agree with the part about shirking responsibility for emotions. It may be very much misdirected, but that’s more likely to be a product of the poor judgement associated with the suicidal mindset than a shirking of responsibility.

Who should be helping?

The author continues that “I believe that people who email strangers about their mental health are doing themselves a disservice by distracting themselves from what they need to do: get professional help. Plus: take control of their own lives.” I agree that contacting strangers when suicidal does people a disservice because it distracts them from avenues that are most likely to be helpful. Professional help is important, but for people who’ve been traumatized by past experiences with the mental health system, that’s not always going to look like a very good choice. Still, there are other services available that are still likely to be a better choice than contacting a stranger. As to taking control of their own life, I think anyone who’s reaching out about their suicidal ideation is taking some form of control.

Then we’ve got the kicker where the author really lost me. “Ultimately, we have to save ourselves. We cannot be so entitled that we expect other people to do it for us.” Ouch. To step back from that specific statement and off in a bit of a different direction, I think there was a sense of entitlement in the person who was emailing me a gazillion times a day about their problems. But do I think that was malicious entitlement? Absolutely not. It was borne out of desperation and being so wrapped up in their own difficulties, and that’s a very different kind of motivator.

Getting back to the idea that we can’t expect other people to save us, that doesn’t take into account that mental illness recovery is complex and isn’t a solo journey. Yes, we need to be selective about who we ask to join us on that journey; however, cutting ourselves off from others is unlikely to swing the compass in the direction of healing.

You may also be interested in the post Suicidal Posts on Social Media: What Should Platforms Do?

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

34 thoughts on “What if a Stranger Online Tells You They’re Suicidal?”

  1. I agree with the sentiment that those who provide help, need to protect and boundary themselves from emotional harm… but as you so rightly say, that doesn’t mean that those seeking the help have to do it alone either! There has to be a balance.

  2. Great article. I know that I am one that reaches out..and blogs and will ask others to help me feel better. I never looked at it as a way for me not to do the work, but maybe it is. I do feel like I am taking this trip solo..so I resort to my blog and any kind of social media contact I can get for support. But I really need to stop doing that. These people don’t know me and really can’t be there for me. They can offer advice..and I appreciate it so much. I guess I blog and reach out through media because I feel like I can’t be judged..or maybe I am judged…but …I don’t have to face that person. I am afraid that the people that I can face…are tired of me. So I reach out out of desperation. It sucks. I need to think about this…this is a good article. I know there were many times that you have responded to my pleas. It’s true, no one else can make this go away, but it is so nice to have people that are there to cheer you on….I just wish I had family and friends in real life to really do that…on a consistent basis. In my head. Thank you for sharing this. And sorry that I am rambling.

    1. I think that writing something asking people who may read it for help is totally fair game. I also think it’s very reasonable to reach out directly to people that you’ve connected with before online. I think that’s very different from going directly to a person that you’ve never had any sort of interaction with.

      1. Thinking about it, it’s also true that a stranger writing about suicide or depression may express feelings that the sufferer may share, but has never before seen expressed by someone else. That wouldn’t necessarily happen in therapy or psychiatric care, because the therapist/psychiatrist may not have personally suffered with depression and/or won’t be encouraged to express their personal feelings in the therapeutic situation. So people can get excited by finding someone else who understands what they are going through and want to make contact.

        1. I think this is it exactly, the reader thinks it safe to reach out because they relate so well to what the writer has expressed. They may be in such a dark place they don’t think about boundaries, just that they may have found help.

  3. I’ve never had that happen directly, but I definitely have enough mistrust of the mental health system to not just be like “whatevs, help is out there.” I’d probably try to offer them a variety of options, be upfront about risks and tradeoffs, and really try to stress that they might have some bad experiences with some providers, but they have a right to trauma-informed care and to respect during the process. If the help they are getting isn’t working, they have the right to cycle through the list and keep looking. Finally, I’d tell them it can take a frustrating amount of time to find something that works, but not to let the norm of the system beat them down before they find that unicorn that might work. Then, I’d be honest and say the ideas I landed on worked *for me*, but each person is different and valuable and I hope they remember that as they navigate how rough it’ll be. Not sure I could do more. I haven’t fully secured my own oxygen mask after last year to be able to give CPR to someone else to the degree they need long term. But, I’d feel a responsibility to try to offer hope, validation, and some realistic stategies within my scope of lived experience, exactly *because* so often the norm is “well just get help” – when I know well how much it hurts to be told that when there truly isn’t where you are and when elements of my story include that so-called “help” that people dismissively point to was part of the abuse in the 9th Circle of Hell in the first place. It always hurt those rare times I tried to explain when I was much younger what I was dealing with and people just refused to be bothered, so they decided there was something wrong with *me* for not finding some magic easy answer to a systemic problem. Help is just that easy, right, so anyone not finding it must be lazy, entitled or stupid, right? (Wrong on all counts). That author incites some of that same “then screw you, if you refuse to see the problem, then you are part of it” response in me with her entitlement talk. I often claim I survived the worst of Hell simply on the desite to stay around to wipe the smug smirks off the faces of people who close their eyes to problems in the system then blame those caught in it. No, I can’t save someone else. I’m too fragile myself too often, and taking on too much in a delicate situation might destabilize things further. I get that, but I would hope at least I could validate the reality of someone else’s struggle and try – to the limited degree I do know how within a broken system – to point them down a path less likely to be a dead end. That goes back to my “do unto others at minimum what I wish had been done for my own younger self” general morality as someone raised with trauma. Thanks for an important and thought-provoking post!

    1. I think it’s good there are some crisis peer support out there, like the MH Crisis Angels on Twitter, that can help close some of those gaps. I’d certainly prefer to access peer support than ER

      1. DBSA also has some decent online groups now. Hard to get into because they always book up, but adds a layer of safety since you can use an anonymous name and not use video if you want. Those and text lines seem like safer ways to discuss ideation for those who have had traumatic experiences, especially with sectioning or medical or other coercion. Certainly an active emergency will still trigger reporting flags, but text and online supports offer some layers of autonomy and support for discussing feelings before they reach acute crisis that I would recommend definitely over the often cold and terrifying ER.

  4. The Happy Book Blog.

    What about the people who don’t feel they can open up to a professional, sometimes it’s easier confiding in a stranger and plus No one’s got the time to wait to speak to a professional. We hear the message everyday, just reach out to somebody. If it prevents a death it’s worth it.

      1. The Happy Book Blog.

        I think many people in our society should show more compassion to people with mental health problems.

  5. I think this author is wrong about someone who shares their suicidal tendencies as a way to get someone else to deal with their emotions for them. If the person called a suicide hotline, they’d still be talking to a stranger!

  6. I agree we need emotional boundaries but we also need each other. Professional friend or strangers we need human connection. And frankly she’s writing the article to strangers so… I don’t get her callousness.

    1. Yeah, I don’t get the callousness either. And I suppose it depends on what’s considered a stranger. I wouldn’t consider my blogging families strangers, but I’m not sure I’d feel up to handling someone totally out of the blue contacting me to disclose that.

  7. Personally, I have known bloggers that have reached out, (no names mentioned) and I have tried to be there for them. However, I did place boundaries in place for myself.
    I am not a mental health care provider. I am not a hotline. I can listen, and try to get the person to reach out to organizations that are better equipped to help the said person.
    I have empathy and understanding when someone is in crisis mode, because… naturally, I’ve been there. Just like a number of us have.
    One thing I can’t imagine is this blogger having so many cases emailing her. That is absurd.

  8. I’m not sure that emailing someone with such a statement – I’m suicidal – is helpful for anyone. Although those of us who deal with that state of mind more often than not are cautioned to reach out when those thoughts start becoming insistent and when we envision acting on them, I, just for myself, would not contact a stranger via email to try to deal with it. I’d get myself to the hospital or call a hotline designed to help me deal with the immediate problem. But nobody should feel they have to keep such ideation to themselves either. That’s a sure remedy for the suicidal person to actually do the deed, in my opinion. People who are depressed to the level of considering suicide feel isolated and often enough misunderstood without adding more to their state of mind. It’s not rational either. So a cry for help is a cry for help to me. If I were in that recipient’s shoes, I’d refer the emailee to a hotline. At least they’d know someone HEARD them..

  9. I understand the frustration the writer must have felt given their situation. It must feel like quite a burden to have strangers email you that they want to kill themselves… In fact, that sounds pretty traumatic to me – so, I understand that they are going to be coming from somewhat of a traumatised place themselves in their views. However, I think a more objective view is exactly what you’ve said. I do think that mentally ill people need help and that it is the responsibility of mental health professionals to help them – in fact, that’s what they’re qualified and paid to do. And even then, just to reach out and manage to receive help (let alone help that actually HELPS), is an insanely difficult thing for a mentally ill individual to take upon themselves. That takes a lot of strength and willpower, which isn’t exactly something that a suicidal person has in abundance as that is so drained just trying to keep themselves surviving through life.

    A suicidal person reaching out to a stranger is as you said, desperate. Maybe they don’t feel like talking to anyone close to them would be a good solution because of the amount of distress that would cause. Maybe they have had a sudden shift and find themselves quite suddenly very suicidal, so seeking professional help isn’t realistic (in the UK the getting just an initial psychological assessment takes around 7 months on the NHS, otherwise all a GP can immediately offer are antidepressants that don’t work for everyone and it still takes around 2 weeks to get an appointment). All of this being said, the suicidal person could very well be in the process of receiving professional help, so emailing a stranger definitely wouldn’t deprive themselves of that.

    A suicidal person is also not the most logical, and although a suicidal person is sometimes calculating, they are sometimes erratic. It’s not too likely that they’d think to call a suicidal hotline etc, and perhaps contacting the writer is the first solution they could think of to the problem they were facing.

    So although I understand why the writer has the perspective that they do, I think it is not very objective and is very skewed due to their own personal experiences.

    I don’t know personally how I’d handle the situation. I think I’d try to be as human as I could and just help as much as I’m able to.

    It’s certainly a difficult situation…

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