How to talk about suicide

During my work as a crisis counselor in a community session, a common question that would come up a lot is how to talk about suicide to a person who may be experiencing suicidal ideation or might be planning an attempt. I noticed that the topic of suicide can be very touchy and very scary, especially if you do not know how to talk about it to someone who might be experiencing suicidal ideation. What can you do? Does talking about it further the idea? What do I do if the person in front of me is feeling suicidal? What can be done? The answers are not that difficult to understand and easy to act on.

Notice the Signs

At times, the warning signs of suicide can be subtle. Which is why at times people will say the question “They were so happy? How could this happen? Why didn’t we notice anything?”. Usually, it’s a long process that an individual thinks about over time. The individual might start to talk about hopelessness in their life over time or may experience intense anxiety and/or anger. They might engage in risky activities, increase alcohol/drug consumption or have extreme mood swings.

The individual might start to withdraw from family and friends, and the individual could even start giving away prized possessions or start saying their good-byes to people that they are close with. These good-byes could be disguised as a simple message saying “Hey! I just want to say that no matter what happens, you have been the greatest friend ever” or “Hey, I just wanted to say I love you and always have and always will.” These final good-byes could vary between individuals.

Risk Factors

Usually, individuals who experience suicidal ideation have had a history of mental health troubles that can be internal or external factors. A few internal factors could be a mental health diagnosis related to personality, mood, anxiety, or even psychosis such as schizophrenia. Family history is also important in terms of internal factors. Studies show that history of suicide in a family increases the risk of suicide among individuals in that family.

As for external, these risk factors usually are related to hardships. Some examples are a loss of a job, relationships, lack of support from the people around them, bullying, substance abuse, financial stress, war, sexual violence, isolation, and so on. These risk factors are tell-tale signs that someone you know could be at risk.

How to talk about it?

Now I know I have given you a ton of info on the risk factors and signs, but the main question is still left unanswered. How do we talk about it? Talk to the person directly; “Hey, I’m worried about you and I want to know if you are thinking about hurting yourself” or “Are you thinking about ending your life/killing yourself?”. Studies have shown that talking about suicide does not increase the risk, if anything, it helps decrease it.

Never beat around the bush when talking about suicide. When you do that, it makes it appear that you are looking for a “No” answer. During this time, remain calm, do not panic and do not judge the individual. Validate their struggles no matter how big or small they are. Do not promise to keep this secret, tell them that there is help for them and listen to their story. Finally, do not leave the person alone no matter how short the time frame is.

If you need help, you can always contact the National Suicide Hotline and get assistance from a trained Crisis Worker. Suicide is usually a cry for help or people feel that there is no escape to what they are dealing with. At times, even asking the question “Are you going to kill yourself?” is enough to stop/delay it from happening.

What to do after?

Now that you opened the conversation, what do you do now? Get them help! Talk to them about going to a hospital together. If needed, call 9-1-1 if the threat has gotten much more serious or if you are at risk of danger yourself. Hospitals are well equipped with helping individuals with suicidal ideation. They have therapists and social workers on standby to offer resources for the individual. They can help the individual process what is going on, build a safety plan, and find them counseling services.

If the person lives with you, you can help reduce methods of suicide at home. Some ways to do this are to lock all firearms up or keep them outside the home. Keep sharp objects away from the individual as well as keep medication locked away. Also, keep away alcohol/substances in which the individual could overdose on.

Written by: Arbin Memsi, LPC
With contribution from: Angela Zender