Suicide is hard to talk about. The subject is uncomfortable. This is in part due to stigmas, general discomfort, and cultural norms. It is painful to consider suicide or fear that a loved one is considering it – yet many are too afraid to bring up the topic because they don’t want those challenging emotions to surface. As we acknowledge Suicide Awareness month, it is important to understand the importance of our role in preventing suicide.
Because of internal and societal pressures mixed with the taboo nature of discussing mental health in general, most are hesitant to talk about suicide, and those who have suicidal thoughts often stay silent out of fear of burdening those around them. Silence only continues the legacy of stigmas surrounding suicide, creating further isolation for those suffering. Being able to talk about suicidal thoughts can help someone who is at risk receive help and begin their journey towards recovery. If you’re on the side of being a loved one, starting the conversation may even save a life.
How to Start the Conversation
If you suspect that someone you know is considering suicide, just talking to them is easier said than done. It is normal to be apprehensive or anxious about starting the conversation. But talking about suicidal thoughts is one of the best ways to help the other person. At the very minimum, you can just let them know that you care about them. Knowing that they have your support can help someone struggling with suicidal thoughts tremendously. Research tells us that social support is one of the best weapons against suicide.
When talking to a loved one about suicide, there is no right thing to say. Just talking is better than saying nothing at all. Many find that simply talking about warning signs you have observed, such as changes in mood or withdrawing from activities and loved ones, is a good way to begin the conversation without mentioning suicide. This may also keep both of you at ease and help keep the conversation open. If the person mentions suicide or self-harm, continue to listen empathetically without judgment. Let them know that they are not alone and that you are there to support them.
No matter how the conversation turns out, it’s important to follow up with your loved one later. Suicidal thoughts can come and go quickly and those who struggle benefit from knowing that their loved one is aware and available if they need help.
How to Respond if a Loved One Says They’re Thinking of Suicide
If your loved one admits that they are having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm, do your best not to act horrified or shocked. This can give the impression of judgment. Avoid jumping straight into problem-solving. The first step is always to listen. Ask why they feel this way and try to validate their feelings. Avoid making them feel guilty for having these feelings, or guilty for what their suicide would do to others. This is counterproductive and causes feelings of shame, or may make the situation worse.
How Can I Encourage Them to Seek Help?
After listening to your loved one, the next step should be to connect them to available resources. Helping them access long-term mental healthcare or a suicide hotline is a good place to start. Suicide hotlines are free, confidential, and can connect the person to resources in your area.
Remember, you do not need to be a trained psychologist or mental health professional to start the conversation about suicide. Learning common risk factors, warning signs, and resources for further help goes a long way. It can help you make sense of what your loved one may be experiencing and allow you to be prepared for the conversation. Your conversation does not need to be perfect and the problem won’t resolve itself overnight. Taking the first step is what is most important.
In the U.S., to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, call 1-800-273-8255. If you are unable to make a phone call, you can also text “HOME” to 741741 to connect with the Crisis Text Line. Those outside the U.S. can search for local resources on the Suicide Hotlines and Prevention Resources page.