Wednesday 10 January 2024

I Wish Our Friendship Could Keep You Safe But I Know it Can't. And That's Okay.

TW: Mention of suicide

I weep because you cannot save people. You can only love them. You can’t transform them, you can only console them. (Anaïs Nin)

This piece has its origin in two sobering thoughts that came to me recently.

Being the best person and friend I can be is not enough to keep my loved ones safe.

One day my friend might not be here anymore.

These aren’t new thoughts. One way or another, I’ve lived with them since Fran and I met twelve years ago. They’re not specific to me and Fran, though. As I wrote last year in Breaking the Silence several people I know live with thoughts of suicide and self-harm, or are in situations that mean they’re sometimes at risk. There will be people in your life too — your friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues — for whom such things are part of their lived experience. It’s not a comfortable realisation, but it’s the simple truth. I know it’s true for my friends because it’s not a taboo subject for us and comes up in conversation whenever it needs to. In that article, written for World Suicide Prevention Day, I discussed how open and honest communication can be protective, even preventative. Putting it bluntly, talking and listening can save lives. It’s far from being a guarantee of safety, though. I learned this early in my friendship with Fran. In our book I describe writing to a mutual friend how I was online for hours with Fran one night.

When I called, her first words were that she wanted to die. I know they are not just words; I understand to some degree how real and ever-present a choice it is for her. She should terrify me. I wonder how it can be that she does not. She says it is because I trust her. I guess that is true.

I continued:

It is not that I trust Fran never to try to harm herself, or imagine our friendship guarantees her safety. [...] But I trust her not to hide her suicidal feelings from me, and to be honest with me about them. Ultimately, I trust Fran to allow me to help her stay alive.

Those words, and the situation which inspired them, date from 2011. A great deal has changed in the intervening years and Fran’s mental health is a good deal more stable than it was. There are no guarantees, however, and that message of trust is as relevant today as it was then. It’s captured in a mantra of ours I find especially helpful: Don’t worry about me. Care for me. Those seven words underpin our friendship, but they apply no less to other friends and loved ones. The mantra grounds me and reminds me of the boundaries and relative responsibilities that are essential in any healthy relationship, whether mental illness is present or not.

I know the uncertainty of not being sure what happened or what might happen next. Someone I knew well died young. They’d spoken of suicide previously but I didn’t ask anyone afterwards and never will now. Knowing wouldn’t change how I think and feel about my friend. If they had a part in deciding how and when they died, I don’t judge them for that and respect them no less. Not knowing allows me to say that with confidence, and to say to others as I have to Fran, if you ever chose to leave, I would not hate you.

This isn’t about dealing with loss, however. It’s about knowing that our friends and loved ones may be at risk sometimes, recognising our friendship and support can help but will never guarantee their safety, and still wanting to be there for and with them. There have been times I’ve woken to a new day unsure whether someone I love is still in the world. It’s not a good feeling but it’s never — never — made me doubt my commitment to our friendship.

I’m far from unique in this, of course. I have many conversations with people concerned for friends and loved ones who may be at risk in various ways. I have three people in mind as I write this. They know that heart-gripping uncertainty. Is my friend okay? What can I do? What about next time? As I have, they’ve learned it’s okay to be unsure, to be scared even. I remember what I said to Fran one time, when she was coming down from mania and anticipated a desperate period of depression. “I can’t promise I won’t get scared. But I am not afraid.” I’m not going anywhere.

How can I remain calm and balanced in the middle of this kind of uncertainty? Everyone is unique and every situation is different but here are a few things which help me.

Care don’t worry. I mentioned this earlier but it’s the single most important thing I’ve learned about being there when my friends are in crisis or at risk. It’s impossible to never worry, and there certainly have been times I’ve tripped into worrying about Fran or other friends. The message remains: worry energy is toxic to you, to your friend or loved one, and to whatever situation they’re in. As Fran puts it, “worry is a negative energy. It hurts people.” For more on this, read Don’t Worry about Me. Care about Me.

Don’t judge your friend for what’s happening or has happened. That applies whether it’s the first time they’ve found themself in this situation, or the second, or the twenty-second. It applies whether you believe they had agency to act otherwise, or not. I’ve written about this previously in Here We Are Again. Whatever happened, no matter how dangerous it might be or have been, you’re not in your friend’s situation and have no business judging them for their actions, inactions, or decisions. Not judging doesn’t mean you don’t have your own opinion or suggestions, but it does mean paying attention and not overriding your friend’s reality with yours just because you think you know better.

Be curious. Ask questions when your friend is in a place to answer (or not answer; both are valid responses). Suggest new approaches or options if your friend is open to hearing them, because an outside perspective can be valuable, but don’t assume you know what’s best or that you’re able to fix things. Take the time to educate yourself about your friend’s mental health condition or situation. You’ll learn more about your friend, what they may be going through, and what you can do to support them. But accept there are limits to what you can understand, and the help you’re able to provide.

Pay attention to boundaries.You’re responsible for your side of the relationship, which includes helping your friend or loved one stay as safe as possible. You’re not responsible for your friend’s safety. Be clear about what you are able to offer, and if that changes, make sure your friend is aware of the change. Don’t say “call me any time day or night” unless you mean it. On the other hand, offer what you’re able to. You might be the only person who does.

Don’t resent it if your friend doesn’t reach out to you when they’re in crisis. There may be any number of reasons. Perhaps you’re not who they need in that moment. Maybe they feel embarrassed or unsure how you’ll respond. Allow them space to call on the support they need when they need it, whether that’s professional support and care, family, or other friends. Know they’ll reach out to you when they’re able to. An approach I’ve found helpful is supportive disengagement, which can be summarised as being there for your friend when they need space.

Know what to do in an emergency. It’s important to know what to do if your friend is in crisis or at immediate risk. I’ve written about this in various posts including How Are You, Really? Eight Things I’ve Learned About Suicidality and Self-Harm. Our resources page has links to international suicide crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers a range of help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else.

Look out for yourself. Being there for friends and loved ones is a great thing, but it’s not always easy and it’s important that you don’t lose sight of your needs while caring for other people’s. Check out Because You’re Worth it for a selection of self-care ideas.

Finally and above all, trust that you and your friend are doing your very best to keep them, you, and your connection strong, safe, and healthy. I’m conformed by the fact that friends and loved ones trust me with their dark and difficult times, as well as their good times. They’re here for me as truly as I am here for them. There may be no guarantees, but we’re committed to remaining present in each other’s lives. And maybe that, ultimately, is what safety is all about.


Photo by Vitolda Klein at Unsplash.



  1. It’s a rare day I don’t consider it.

    1. Thank you for taking time to reply. I am very glad you are here.