What to Say to Someone Who Is Suicidal & What NOT to Say

Suicide is undoubtedly a delicate topic. It can be confusing, shameful, and challenging to talk about. Because of how emotionally charged the subject is, people often don’t know what to say to someone who is suicidal. They worry about making things worse and feel panicked by the fear of saying the wrong thing.

If you think someone you know is suicidal, you might feel lost, not knowing what to do. That’s normal. Read on for a few ideas about what to say and what not to say to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts.

What to Say to Someone Who Is Suicidal

If someone discloses suicidal thoughts to you, recognize that this means they trust you. It’s not easy to open up about these uncomfortable feelings. People struggling with suicidal thoughts often worry about being a burden to others. They also worry about being rejected or dismissed. Saying these things with love and compassion may help them feel understood.

Validate Your Loved One

First, it’s a good idea to validate your loved one. Validating means recognizing and accepting someone else’s internal experience. It helps people feel more safe and connected. Some examples of validating statements include:

  • Thank you for sharing this with me.
  • That does sound like it’s hard.
  • I’m proud of you for opening up.
  • I know we can figure this out together.
  • Your emotions make perfect sense.
  • I understand completely.
  • I care about you, and I’m here for you.
three affirming signs hang on a fence

Ask Direct Questions

Although it may feel uncomfortable, it’s essential to know whether your loved one is in imminent danger of harming themselves or someone else. Direct questions include:

  • How long have you been struggling with these thoughts?
  • Do you have the means to hurt yourself right now?
  • Do you have a plan to hurt yourself right now?

Help Them Get the Help They Need

If your loved one is actively suicidal, do not leave them alone. Let them know you will support them in getting immediate help. This help may vary depending on the circumstances.

Suicide Prevention Hotline

The suicide prevention hotline provides 24/7 crisis counseling to individuals in emotional distress. They can call 1-800-273-8255 for confidential support.

The Emergency Room

If your loved one is in imminent danger (like in the event of a drug overdose or a suicide attempt), they may need medical attention. Take them to the nearest emergency room or call 911.

Ongoing Support

Help your loved one find professional treatment. Often, people feel overwhelmed by their feelings, and they may struggle to get help on their own. Offer to sit with them as they call their doctor or reach out to therapists. If they’re okay with it, you could research therapists for them, or addiction treatment centers, if they also have a problem with substance abuse.

What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Suicidal

When you’re listening to or having a conversation with someone who is suicidal, knowing what not to say can be even more important than knowing what to say. Keep these tips in mind when interacting with your loved one, and avoid saying:

“You Just Want Attention.”

If someone discloses suicidal thoughts to you, they are expressing one of the most vulnerable parts of themselves. This isn’t about attention; it’s about asking for help. Dismissing them for trusting you may cause them to withdraw entirely.

“Are You Sure You Feel That Way?”

Feelings are real. If your loved one discloses feeling depressed or hopeless, don’t discount them. You’ll be more likely to make a positive difference if you validate them instead, saying something like, “Your emotions make perfect sense. We can figure this out together.”

“I’d Be So Sad If You Died.”

Of course, you would be sad! Unfortunately, this statement often induces more guilt and shame, which can increase self-destructive thoughts. Try to remember that this conversation isn’t about your feelings—it’s about theirs.

“Try and Think About Everything You’re Grateful For.”

Optimism can play an influential role in changing negative thoughts, but a blanket statement like this can make your loved one feel worse. They probably already feel guilty about their thoughts. Telling them to “just think positively” invalidates their emotions.

“Suicide Is So Selfish.”

To the individual suffering, suicide may seem like the only way to get relief. Instead of making a harsh accusation that induces more guilt, aim to be nonjudgmental and supportive of their emotions.

“Things Could Always Be Worse.”

While this statement may be true, it may make them feel guilty, and it’s unhelpful. Your loved one is in pain. Right now, things feel as bad as they can get. Telling them things could get worse implies you don’t believe their current struggle is legitimate and may make them feel even more hopeless.

“You Just Need to Stop Doing X, Y, or Z, and You’ll Feel Better.”

Whether your loved one is addicted to drugs or in a toxic relationship, you might think a single factor represents the source of all their problems. But suicide is a multifaceted issue. That means there are many risk factors for suicide, including:

Final Thoughts on Supporting Your Loved One

The risk of suicide can be incredibly scary. Of course, you want your loved one to be safe and healthy. At the same time, you can’t assume the sole responsibility for their well-being. These tips for what to say and what not to say to someone who is suicidal can help ground you and make you better able to give whatever help you can. Remember to enter any conversation with an open mind and open heart to hear them.

If your loved one is struggling with substance use, suicide represents a serious threat. At Footprints to Recovery, we’re here to help. Contact us today to learn more.

References

  1. https://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/carers-hub/suicidal-thoughts-how-to-support-someone/
  2. https://www.sane.org/information-stories/facts-and-guides/sane-steps-how-to-help-when-someone-is-suicidal
  3. https://www.sprc.org/about-suicide/risk-protective-factors

Jenna Richer

Executive Director - Colorado
Jenna, MSW, LCSW, has worked extensively with individuals experiencing homelessness, severe and persistent mental illness, & co-occurring substance use disorders. She oversaw several intensive, field-based programs providing services to these individuals through the LA County Dept. of Mental Health & Veterans Administration. Jenna worked with the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health to secure SAMHSA grants for mental health & housing services providers. Prior to her current role, Jenna served as the Division Director for Housing and Homelessness programs through Family Tree, working with local officials, leaders, housing developers, & grants on “Housing First” programming with mental health services for people experiencing homelessness, addiction, & mental illness.

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