Suicide is a serious problem worldwide. In fact, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Suicidal behavior can affect people of all genders, ages and races, and often there is no single cause.
Still, discussing suicide with friends or family can be a difficult and uncomfortable topic.
If a loved one raises the issue of suicide, knowing how to handle the conversation can make it easier to provide them with the support they need.
According to NIMHT, suicidal thoughts are symptoms of extreme distress and should not be dismissed or ignored.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, ask them directly if they are having suicidal thoughts.
Although it may sound counterintuitive, research shows that asking someone if they are considering suicide does not increase the risk of suicidal ideation and may actually be beneficial.
Listen to your loved ones without judgment, take their concerns seriously, and let them know you care.
Asking follow-up questions can also help you determine the best way to provide support. Some examples include:
"Have you ever tried to hurt yourself before?"
"Have you ever thought about what to do?"
"Do you have a plan?"
“What might make you act on these thoughts or feelings?”
Active listening skills—such as asking questions, showing interest in nonverbal cues, and summarizing what the other person is saying—can help them feel acknowledged and validated when discussing sensitive topics.
Listening without interruption and using verbal encouragement such as "Tell me more" or "What happened next?" can also help during emotionally painful or difficult conversations.
Also, avoid countering any negative statements by saying things like "It's not that bad" or "Other people have it worse."
Instead of arguing, losing patience, or debating whether suicide is right or wrong, offer support to your loved one and make sure they know they can open up to you.
Additionally, work with them to keep items such as guns, knives, drugs or pills removed from their environment to keep them safe.
It's also important to encourage your loved one to seek help and contact a doctor or therapist.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends talking calmly and asking simple, direct questions, such as "Can I call a therapist for you?"
If they don't have a therapist, you can also ask them if they need help finding one or if they would consider going to a hospital.
Develop a safety plan
If a loved one says they have suicidal thoughts or impulses and are unsure how to respond, it may be helpful to work with them on a safety plan.
Security plans usually include:
- Identify any triggers or signs of suicidal thoughts
- Outline some healthy coping strategies you can try
- Make a list of friends or family to contact
- Write down an emergency contact person, such as a therapist, psychiatrist, or crisis hotline
- Reduce access to lethal means, including guns, knives or pills
Creating a safety plan can help loved ones manage strong emotions and learn how to cope with a mental health crisis.
keep in touch
After you provide someone with the support and resources they need, it's important to follow up to see how they're doing.
In addition to reassuring them that you are there for them, this also ensures they know they can talk to you if they are in crisis.
According to a 2017 study, tracking people with suicidal thoughts may reduce the perceived risk of future suicidal behavior.
Calling your loved one, sending a text message, or mailing a thoughtful postcard or letter can help remind them that you care.
Frequently asked questions
What should you say to someone who claims to be suicidal?
If someone expresses they are having suicidal thoughts, stay present, listen, ask questions, and encourage them to seek help. Helping them access ongoing support, such as a mental health professional, and developing a safety plan may also be beneficial.
Avoid invalidating their thoughts or feelings, arguing whether suicide is right or wrong, or comparing your situation to others. These reactions can minimize what someone may be experiencing and may lead to feelings of guilt or shame.
What happens if you call a suicide helpline?
When you call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, you will hear a message saying you have arrived at the Lifeline and then some hold music to connect you with a trained crisis worker.
Crisis staff at your nearest Lifeline Network Crisis Center will answer and listen, offer support and share any resources that may be helpful.
If someone was suicidal, would you call the local emergency number?
If you think someone is in immediate danger or you are unable to reach someone you trust, call your local emergency number. It is recommended that contacting a local emergency psychiatric care center may also be helpful.
It is also important to include family and friends to support the person you care about as much as possible. If a person is not in immediate danger, crisis support networks such as the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline are available.
What to do when someone is suicidal and refuses help?
Be sure to listen and be supportive without passing judgment, which may encourage them to open up and ask for help. You can also provide them with resources, such as a suicide and crisis lifeline, and help them connect with a therapist or mental health professional.
However, if you think someone is in immediate danger, call your local psychiatric clinic. If possible, you may be able to bring in a trained crisis intervention team to help manage a behavioral crisis situation.
If a loved one says they are having suicidal thoughts, it is important to ask questions, listen without judgment, and offer support.
It may also be beneficial to develop a safety plan and help connect them with a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist or other resources. Also, follow up to see how they are doing and remind your loved ones that you care.
Hong Kong Samaritan Suicide Prevention Association: 2389 2222
Samaritans 24-hour multilingual service: 2896 0000
Lifeline: 2382 0000