How To Talk About Suicide In A Way That's Actually Helpful

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 

Suicide is a matter that has affected, or will affect, most of us. With more than 48,000 Americans dying by suicide each year, many of us know or have loved someone who took their life. That, or we know a person who has made an attempt. And yet, in spite of rising suicide rates, it is an issue we do not talk about. Suicide is seen as shameful, a subject that is scary and taboo. But it’s important we discuss suicide, openly and honestly. It’s imperative we say the word and do not skirt around the issue, and the reason is three-fold: by talking about suicide, we reduce the stigma surrounding it. The guilt, shame, and blame is gone. In talking about suicide, we validate the experience of others. We let them know they are heard and not alone. In talking about suicide, we can prevent suicide.

“Knowing the risk factors and recognizing the warning signs for suicide can help prevent suicide,” an article from the American Psychiatric Association explains. “If someone indicates they are considering suicide, listen and take their concerns seriously. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their plans. Let them know you care, and they are not alone.”

Here are five ways to talk about suicide.

Begin the conversation, openly and directly.

The first and most important thing you can do if someone you love is contemplating suicide is to talk to them, openly and directly. Ask them how they are feeling. Say things like “I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately” or “I’ve been really concerned about you.” Listen, without shame or judgement. Without stigma. Avoid accusatory language — saying something like “you’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” is tone-deaf and hurtful.

Ask pointed questions, like “Are you thinking about suicide?” and/or “Do you have a plan?”

While it’s important you avoid accusatory language, you should not avoid the issue at hand. An article by #BeThe1To, a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline initiative, explains that suicide needs to be discussed, in a safe, thoughtful, and respectful way.

“Asking the question ‘are you thinking about suicide?’ communicates that you’re open to speaking about suicide in a non-judgmental and supportive way,” #BeThe1To states. “Asking in this direct, unbiased manner, can open the door for effective dialogue about their emotional pain and can allow everyone involved to see what next steps need to be taken. Other questions you can ask include, ‘how do you hurt?’ and ‘how can I help?’”

Validate the individual’s experience.

While it’s impossible to understand what someone who is suicidal is feeling — particularly if you haven’t experienced similar feelings yourself — you can empathize with them and validate their experience. Say things like “That must be so hard for you. I’m sorry you’re struggling.” Let them know they’re not alone. Say “I’m right here with you,” and mean it. Do not leave their side. And thank them for their vulnerability. Say “I’m so glad you’re telling me how you’re feeling. Thank you for sharing this with me.”

Encourage them to keep talking — and really listen to what they have to say.

It’s important to talk about suicide, openly and directly. Honest conversations around the issue have the power to change and save lives. But once you’ve start the conversation, you’ll want to keep the individual talking.

“Let them [the person you’re speaking with] know you want to hear more about how they’re feeling, and what they’re going through,” an article by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention explains. “Listen actively by expressing curiosity and interest in the details. [Say things like] ‘Wow – that situation sounds really difficult’ and ‘How did that make you feel when that happened?'” And encourage them to keep talking, no matter how hard things get or how difficult the conversation seems.

Offer support and help.

Once you’ve spoken with the individual and (hopefully) talked them off the proverbial ledge, you’ll want to offer resources and support. Know the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255; have numbers — and addresses — for local resources and treatment centers, and offer said resources to the person in crisis. Let them know you just want to help them and keep them safe.

You can also suggest they see a mental health professional. AFSP suggest broaching the subject in one of two ways:

“I hear you that you’re struggling, and I think it would really be helpful for you to talk to someone who can help you get through this.”

“You know, therapy isn’t just for serious, ‘clinical’ problems. It can help any of us process any challenges we’re facing — and we all face serious stuff sometimes.”

If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, know there is help and hope. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 to speak with a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

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