Suicide is a sensitive subject. It’s hard to talk about, and it’s even harder to navigate a situation where a loved one is in danger of suicide. Learning about suicide prevention resources may help you save a life. However, it is important to understand that suicide is not 100% preventable. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide should never blame themselves for the loss. We can only do our best.
A person having suicidal thoughts may simply need a shoulder to cry on and encouragement to seek professional help. However, someone who is at high risk of attempting suicide should not be left alone and may need emergency psychiatric treatment. There are a few questions you can ask to assess how dangerous the situation is.
The first step is simply asking the person whether or not he or she is having thoughts of suicide. It is common to be afraid to ask someone outright if they are suicidal due to the awkwardness and fear that talking about suicide will trigger an attempt. Simply mentioning suicide to a person struggling with suicidal thoughts will not cause them to make an attempt. In fact, once the initial embarrassment has passed, many people report feeling relieved after they admit to someone that they are struggling with suicidal ideation. However, it is important to retain a compassionate, calm, and nonjudgmental tone when approaching this subject.
Once someone has admitted to you that they are suicidal, you can ask them if they have made a plan to end their life, if they have the means to follow through (e.g., access to a gun, pills, etc.), and if they have attempted suicide before. The more “yes’s” you receive in response, the higher the risk of suicide. You can also ask if they have told anyone else about their suicidal thoughts, if they have made any preparations for death such as giving away possessions, and if they have a strong support system of family and friends that they can turn to. It is acceptable to use nonverbal cues and gut feelings when assessing a person’s risk for suicide (University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research, 2012).
Low Risk vs. High Risk
If the person you are talking to appears to be at low risk for suicide, understand that their suffering is no less significant than someone at higher risk. Talk to them about their feelings in an empathetic manner. Encourage them to seek professional help, and offer to bring them to a local therapist’s office if you can. Provide them with the number for a suicide hotline and let them know that help and support are available.
If the person appears to be at high risk for suicide, meaning it is very likely that he or she will attempt suicide in the near future, he or she should not be left alone. If the individual is not interested in going to a therapist, it may be beneficial to call a suicide hotline or mental health professional for advice on how to proceed. Talk to the person about the possibility of informing family and close friends about these suicidal thoughts. Inpatient psychiatric care may be necessary for those at very high risk.
DOs and DON’Ts
DO respond empathetically. “I can imagine how difficult it is to deal with this…”
DO provide resources such as hotline numbers.
DO listen more than talk.
DON’T use clichés as a way of comforting. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
DON’T invalidate feelings by arguing against them. “How can you feel this way when there are people suffering so much more than you?”
DON’T tell others who are not mental health professionals about suicidality unless there is imminent risk.
National Suicide Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255
GoodTherapy.org: Worldwide directory of therapists which includes information on the therapeutic process.