Do people who continually threaten to commit suicide actually mean it or are they just crying wolf to seek attention? Yes is the answer to both questions.
When people are hurting, there are many reasons why they want to tell you - You hurt me so now I will hurt you, I want to share my pain with you, I am hurting and I can't or don't know how to fix it, or I want to tell you how I feel and this is the only way I know how to do so.
When we are faced with this statement for the second, third or fourth time, we begin to wonder if the person is actually serious or maybe just seeking attention. The difficulty is that it is often too hard to tell.
We can, if we are properly trained, assess people for signs that they can't consciously feign - lethargy, reduced eye contact, crying genuine tears, and looking pale - but again none of us can truly tell if the person is serious. There simply is no way of genuinely knowing if someone is going to take their life.
I have read recommendations that you should ask them directly, "Are you thinking of killing yourself and have you made a plan yet?" That might work. However, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of people will tell you that they aren't thinking of committing suicide and don't have a plan yet go on to do so. There are others who will say yes and tell you about their plan but haven't gone through with it, yet.
The difficulty we have as the recipient of this continual message "I don't know how I can keep going", "I just want to kill myself", or "One day I won't be here" is what to do about it. It often feels like you are being emotionally blackmailed and you are left wondering if you should take the comment seriously, get help for the person, or simply ignore it.
You can eliminate the latter, never ignore it. Ignoring something is the same as sanctioning it.
You should, however, always do the first two things. Always take the comment seriously and always try to get the person some professional help. On every occasion that they suggest they are thinking about killing themselves do these two things.
Here are the reasons; we know from research that people will often make many threats of suicide and do eventually go through with it, we also know that if we push people away who want to disclose what they are thinking may make them feel isolated and fragile, and we also know that by telling someone time and time again may actually convince ourselves to go through with the threats.
On every occasion that someone suggests that they are considering suicide, no matter how it is said or how it sounds, take it seriously. The person may well be crying wolf, but we never really know for certain.
So, what should you do if a person continually says that they are struggling and can't go on? Ask them to repeat what they just said. Why, because we want to confirm that what we heard was correct and to hold the person to account by getting them to repeat it.
If they confirm it, say "I take these comments very seriously and I want to help you as I would hate to think that you told me this and I did nothing about it". This shows that you care, reinforces your concern for their safety, and again holds the person to account.
There are many organisations now providing assistance to those who are struggling. Encourage the person to get help and tell them that you will be following up with them tomorrow to see how they are. You might want to go with them which will again show that you care and won't sit idly by when they make such a comment.
If you have genuine concerns, call the police. They will initially conduct a welfare check to ensure the person is okay, (very important if the person is phoning you), and have trained crisis intervention personnel who will 'shake them and take them'. They will come and talk to the person, remove them from harm, and get them professionally assessed.
By doing all of these things, you are helping the person by listening and offering support and you are also saying that I may not be the right person who can help you. You are also indirectly saying that I don't like it when you tell me these things over and over so I will also be telling you the same thing over and over.
There is no right or wrong answer as to whether someone is crying wolf or what to do about. The main question that should be foremost in our minds - 'What happens if I push them away and they go through with their threat'.
Yes, it is their choice, well sort of. However, you don't want to be left with feelings of guilt and regret and end in the same position as the person who spoke with you.