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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.