Talking with someone about their suicidal thoughts
Having a discussion about suicide may seem like a daunting prospect. The information below is designed to help you shape these discussions.
People thinking about suicide are usually uncertain about acting on their thoughts of ending their own life. There is often a part of the person that wants to live and a part that wants to die. It is important to hear their pain and work with the part that wants to live to keep the person safe and support them to seek help.
Always allow the person the space to talk. A person who is thinking about taking their life is usually feeling overwhelming mental anguish and emotional pain. Allowing them the space and opportunity to talk about their thoughts and feelings can help a person thinking of suicide feel supported and may assist them to put things into perspective.
How to start a conversation about suicide
It is important to ask the person directly if they are feeling suicidal or if they have been thinking about suicide. It is a myth (see Common myths about suicide) that talking directly about suicide will put the idea in their head. Instead, talking openly and honestly about what you've noticed and genuinely asking how they are feeling can give the person the opportunity to take the first steps towards getting the help they need.
Listed below are some ideas to help you start the conversation:
- "I've noticed that you haven't been yourself lately, is everything ok with you?"
- "I'm worried about you. I'm wondering if we can talk about what's troubling you?"
- "You've seemed really (down/sad/angry/unhappy) lately. I'm worried that you might be thinking of hurting yourself or suicide. Can we talk about this?"
Expressing your concerns to a suicidal loved one
- Let the person at risk know that you are concerned and that you care. Often, knowing another person cares enough to become involved and listen to them can be a great comfort to someone who is suicidal.
- Let the person know that you have noticed them that is, any changes in behaviour and feelings you have noticed or something that they have said that might have alerted you (see Suicide warning signs)
- It is important to simply describe what you have observed rather than use words that convey judgment such as 'good' and 'bad'. If the person feels judged, they might feel embarrassed or withdraw.
- Be honest and genuine in your concern.
Having expressed your concern and conveyed your support, keep the following in mind:
- Acknowledge that you understand that the person is experiencing a lot of pain at present.
- Show respect and be as understanding as possible about their situation.
- Maintain eye contact and open body language.
- Ensure you listen carefully to what they have to say. Using active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing what the person has said to ensure you understand them.
- Avoid minimising or dismissing their problems, ensure they know you're taking them seriously.
- Avoid using statements such as "You don't know how lucky you are" or "You shouldn't feel like that", these might sound to the person as though you are judging them and minimising how they are feeling.
- Remind the person that although they may be having thoughts of suicide, they can choose not to act on them.
- Offer realistic hope, it is possible for situations to improve or change for the better. It is likely that their problems weren't created overnight, therefore the situation will probably take time to resolve. But their problem is resolvable through other means.
- If they are feeling suicidal, the next step is to support them to get professional help. For an overview of support options, see Supporting someone to get help.
What if I think something is wrong but they insist they're okay?
- Continue to be observant for any warning signs of possible suicidal risk (see Warning Signs).
- Trust your instincts and follow through on any concerns or suspicions you have, don't be afraid to check in with them again if you notice any warning signs.
- Ensure that those in the person's support network know about your concerns and the changes you've noticed, and are also looking out for any other warning signs.
- Make yourself available and reassure the person that you will listen when they are ready to talk.
Should I keep their suicide plans to myself?
If the person reveals that they are seriously thinking of suicide and have a plan, it is critical that you seek professional help as soon as possible. Don't keep or agree to secrets that could lead to the person harming themselves. It is important to be firm about your intentions to involve others if they won't. Tell them that you are taking what they say very seriously and that you can't keep this information to yourself.
Don't try to deal with this situation alone, encourage the person to get professional help and support them to do so (see Supporting someone to get help). It is a good idea to involve the suicidal person in this process as much as possible, as it is important for them to take an active role in resolving their suicidal crisis.
What if they don't want to talk to a professional?
If the person doesn't want to talk to a professional and their immediate risk is lower, work with them to identify other supports such as parents, family members, friends, teachers or colleagues. It is important for the suicidal person to build support around them.
If they don't agree to seek professional help and the immediate risk is high, you will need to contact emergency services on their behalf regardless of their wishes. See Emergency information.
Another important thing you can do to help someone who is feeling suicidal is to help them create a safety plan.