*If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, please call 911*
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, making it the perfect time to learn how to have an open and compassionate conversation when you think a loved one may be at risk for suicide.
Whether you’re starting the conversation or being approached by a friend, it’s okay to worry about what to say or what not to. Follow along for a guide on how to talk about suicide with a loved one.
Learn the warning signs
While sometimes a friend may approach you for support, it’s also important to recognize the warning signs so that you know when a conversation may be necessary.
- Expressing suicidal thoughts, such as wanting to die or “not be here anymore”
- A sudden and unprecedented increase in mood following depression
- Isolating from others
- Losing interest in regular activities
- Sleeping more than usual or not enough
- Loss of appetite
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Extreme mood swings
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Explicitly stating that they want to kill themselves
It’s important to understand that suicidal ideation can appear differently in each individual, and not everyone will display traditional warning signs. As you learn about these warning signs, know that you shouldn’t blame yourself if you might have missed any. It is never your fault.
You don’t always need “the right thing” to say
Suicidal thoughts can be complex, and you may not always have the perfect response to a friend who expresses suicidal ideation or shows warning signs. An expression of care is sometimes all you need to show your friend that you are there to support them. If a friend opens up about struggling with their mental health, consider statements like:
“It sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot lately. I want you to know that I’m here for you.”
“How you feel isn’t going to change how much I care about you. I’m here to support you.”
“It sounds like this time has been overwhelming for you. I’m glad you shared this with me. You don’t have to go through this alone, we’re going to get through this together.”
“I can see how difficult it was for you to be open about this, so I wanted to thank you for telling me. How can I help?”
Be direct when asking about suicide
Always ask about suicide. Asking directly will not encourage them to attempt suicide or put the idea in their head, it will instead show that they can be honest with you and turn to you for support. Avoid using terms like “commit suicide”, which contribute to a negative attitude around talking about suicide.
Ways to ask the initial question:
“I’m hearing that you’ve been dealing with a lot lately, and that it feels unbearable. I’m wondering, have you had any thoughts of suicide?”
“I’m worried for your safety. Have you considered taking your own life?”
“It sounds like this time has been very difficult for you. I just want to check in, have you had any thoughts of death or dying?”
Ask them about how they’re feeling & activity listen
Often stigma, an object, idea, or label associated with disgrace or reproach, can deter people from seeking help when they’ve been struggling. People may fear that they’ll be called attention seekers or have their feelings invalidated. While everything may seem fine on the outside, struggling with your mental health can be isolating and consuming. If your friend has been holding in these thoughts for some time, they’ll need a friend to actually listen. Take them seriously and avoid belittling their feelings.
Here are some helpful phrases:
“What you’re telling me sounds like it’s been very painful for you. How long have you felt this way?”
“Has anything specific been going on lately that has made you feel this way?”
“I can imagine how hard going through [insert issue] has been. What have you been doing to cope?”
Get necessary details & risk assess
It’s important to assess if your friend is at imminent risk for suicide. If your friend tells you they are considering suicide, you can follow up by asking these few questions:
“I’m wondering, do you have a plan for how you would take your life?”
IF YES, “Thank you for telling me. Do you have what you would use to attempt suicide?”
IF YES, “Do you know when you would go through with this plan?”
If they have a timeframe within 48 hours, get help from a trusted adult or professional as soon as possible.
If they say no to any point when gathering details, you can stop asking questions. Instead, say something like, “Okay, thanks for being so open with me. If you ever do, you can always tell me.”
Direct the person towards help
Being a friend to someone in need is invaluable, but it’s not a replacement for professional support. Create a plan with your friend for next steps to getting help. Follow their lead; let them tell you what is comfortable for them and then guide them in the right direction. However, always ensure that the next step is finding help: their safety is the priority.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Call 1-800-273-8255(TALK) for 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Text “HOME” to 741-741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor for free, confidential, 24/7 support.
The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25. If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgement-free place to talk, call TrevorLifeline at 1-866-7386 for 24/7 support.
Find free or affordable counseling near you using this directory.
Suicide is preventable, and by starting the conversation, showing support, and helping people in crisis find ways to connect with mental health services, we can save lives.