Talking to someone about their suicidal thoughts is understandably upsetting, particularly if the conversation is unexpected or involves a family member or friend.
Although talking to someone who is thinking about suicide may not be easy, what you say and how you listen can make a significant difference to their wellbeing.
If you find yourself providing support and reassurance to a suicidal person, your ultimate aim is to help them stay safe so that they can get professional help.
How do I talk to someone about suicide?
A person who is thinking about ending their life is experiencing intense emotional pain. Allowing them to talk about what they are feeling and experiencing can help them feel supported. For this reason, when discussing someone’s suicidal ideation, it is crucial that you be open in your communication and listen without judging.
How can I start this difficult conversation with a suicidal person?
You may be wondering how you could possibly begin a conversation with someone on a serious topic like their thoughts about suicide. It is a myth that asking someone if they are feeling suicidal will make them want to take their own life. However, you can rest assured that asking someone outright will not make them more suicidal.
In fact, asking someone about their suicidal thoughts shows them that you are genuinely concerned for them. However, the important thing is to be direct.
You might ask someone “I’ve noticed you haven’t sounded well lately and I am worried about you, what’s going on?” or “I noticed that you seem down lately and I am very worried about how this is affecting you, can we talk about this?”
Let the other person know that you care and that you’re asking because you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour. When putting things into words, be sure to say what you have observed in direct and matter-of-fact terms.
For example, saying “I’ve noticed you’ve gone off your food” or “I can see you haven’t been at work this week” does not convey any judgement. A statement like “you need to eat” or “you shouldn’t be skipping work” might make the person feel embarrassed, judged, or unwilling to open up further.
It is very important that your questions are sincere and honest. Have the conversation in an environment that is free of distractions and don’t change or avoid the subject.
Importantly, at all times stay in control of your feelings, responses and actions. You must resist the urge to get angry, tell the other person of your disappointment, belittle or put them down, or tell them how to ‘fix’ the situation.
This last point is particularly important. It is normal to experience strong and (very likely) unpleasant thoughts and feelings when talking to a loved one about how they are thinking about suicide. These thoughts might include shock, guilt, anger or denial. You may even feel conflicted if you experience one feeling (such as anger) at one moment, followed by a seemingly contradictory feeling (such as guilt).
Nonetheless, it is very important to remain calm, non-judgmental, and in control of your thoughts, emotions and actions.
By asking the person how they are doing you have registered with them that you are concerned. Even if the discussion comes as a shock, it is important that you remain focussed and attentive. Acknowledge that they are experiencing anguish (but don’t ‘hijack’ what they are saying by relating it back to yourself), don’t minimise or diminish what they say, and remind them that, although they may be having suicidal thoughts, they have the option not to act on them.
Keep in mind that you are not an expert in mental health and suicide prevention. While it is extremely important that you support your friend or loved one, you should not shoulder the whole burden on your own.
Therefore, your goal should be to ensure that the person stays safe so that they can get professional help. The Suicide Call Back Service provides a wide range of support for these and other situations related to suicide. It is staffed 24 7 by professional career counsellors (there are no volunteers) who are experts at listening and talking to people with suicidal thoughts.
Suicide Call Back Service counsellors also talk to thousands of people who do not experience suicidal thoughts (suicidal ideation) of their own but who are affected by suicide or who are bereaved by suicide.
Free online counselling as well as phone counselling is available throughout Australia.
If you need to talk to a counsellor, call Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
If it is an emergency, dial 000.