So you suspect a friend is grappling with thoughts of suicide. Maybe they’ve withdrawn more and isolated themselves from their normal social life. Maybe they’ve just seemed more down in the dumps and depressed. Maybe they’ve even expressed a desire or thought in passing about how things would be better without them.
What do you do?
Some people feel uncomfortable talking about these kinds of feelings. Others may feel ill-prepared or unequipped to handle someone talking to them about suicide. Others still may fear unleashing a torrent of despair from their friend, one they wouldn’t know what to do with.
Here’s how you talk to someone about suicide.
Talking to someone about suicide is never easy. It may even be awkward at times, but you shouldn’t let your discomfort dissuade you from trying. After all, you may be saving your friend’s life by taking this step.
You should also take any signs of suicide seriously. Maybe your friend will just mention in passing how they imagine everybody’s life would be easier without them in it. Maybe they pose a hypothetical question, such as, “How you ever imagined what it would be like to end your own life? Oh no, I never have myself, but was just wondering if you had.” They may also initially deny having any such thoughts themselves — a defense mechanism meant to calm someone who isn’t as perceptive as you are.
But because you are more perceptive than the average friend, you want to help. You want to talk to them about it, and give them back a glimmer of hope — the hope that suicidal thoughts too often take away.
How to Talk to a Friend About Suicide
1. Take the time to do it face-to-face, in a quiet, private place.
This is not a conversation you should be trying to have via text. Although texting may be a way to setup the time and place for this chat, it’s not likely you’re going to get a good response if you don’t do it face-to-face. It’s also important not to do it in a loud, public place where a person isn’t going to feel very safe to share their most personal thoughts and feelings.
2. Be open and frank with your concerns.
Dancing around the topic won’t help them — you have to be direct and open in expressing your concern for their well-being. Here are some ideas on how to get started:
- “Hey, I noticed you haven’t seemed to have been yourself lately, and I’m a little concerned.”
- “You seem to have been really down… keeping to yourself. Some of the things you’ve said have me a little concerned.”
- “What’s been going on with you? You really seem to be struggling with something, and I want to talk to you about it, if you feel up to it.”
3. Don’t be put off by an initial denial that “everything’s okay.”
Most people struggling with suicidal thoughts are a little embarrassed to acknowledge them to a friend at first. That’s a natural response to a society where we rarely talk openly about death in general, much less one’s taking of one’s own life. Many people who are suicidal may initially deny they are, and need a little bit more prodding and expression of concern by you before they’ll feel like it will be okay to talk to you about this concern.
You may need to ask a few direct questions to let them know it’s okay to talk to you about this topic, like, “When did you first start feeling this way?” and “Anything bring this stuff on that you can point to… or is it just random?” Try and further your questioning — without being overly intrusive or curious1 — by asking things like, “Have you thought about how you’d do it?” or “Have you talked to anyone else about these feelings?… Or thought about maybe doing so, like a therapist?”
4. You have to be strong enough to have this conversation.
People who are suicidal are sensitive to knowing when a person they’re talking to isn’t open to a real or deep discussion of dying, the meaning of life, and their own thoughts of death. If you try and offer simple platitudes like, “Oh, I’m sure it’ll all turn out alright,” or, “Hey, you’re a strong person, I’m sure you’ll get through this okay on your own,” you’re sending the message that you’re done and not really there for them. Don’t turn to those simple platitudes — find something deeper within you that has real meaning.
5. Keep the conversation going.
It helps to remember to be yourself and just listen as much as possible. A person who is suicidal often feels like they’re holding on to a secret, and want desperately to share it with someone. You can be that someone. Let them talk, let them share it all with you.
When talking to someone who is suicidal, it’s important not to turn it into a confrontation or argument. You have to put on your non-judgmental mask, and be empathetic above all. If the person who is suicidal senses judgment, they may shut down and stop talking — which will have defeated your whole effort. This isn’t time to take a moral high-horse, or lecture from the Bible. This is the time to just be one human being talking to another, trying to help them find a way through another day.
6. You can’t fix their problems, but you can help them re-discover hope.
Nobody can fix another person’s problems, and advice is usually not as helpfully received as we intend. You’re there to help offer them hope and ensure they can make it through another day. Ultimately, however, they’ll need more help than you alone can provide.
You can help them get to that next step by saying positive things that affirm hope in their lives:
- “I know it’s hard to see this right now, but you have a lot of life to live in front of you. I’m here to listen and to help you get through this.”
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I care about you, and I’m not alone in this.”2
- “I know things look bleak, but if you let me, I’d like to try and help…”
And your help will be trying to get them to the next step…
7. Helping them get help.
You can be that bridge of hope to helping them get help. Because too often, someone who is suicidal is either not accessing any kind of professional care, or they don’t think they should. There may be many reasons for this, so you’ll have to do your best to address their concerns.3
In virtually every case, someone who is actively suicidal — thinking about it, maybe has a plan — could benefit from treatment. It may just be going into see a therapist or even a GP (if they’re concerned about talking to a therapist). Those tentative first steps are so important. Help them access that care, whatever they feel most comfortable with.
Then, follow up with them to ensure they’ve actually done what they said they’d do. “Did you make that appointment we talked about the other day?” Don’t be annoying about it. Just ask matter-of-factly (texting is fine for such a question).
We All Can Help
Talking to someone about suicide is within most of our abilities. We need to stop relying on unseen “others” to take responsibility to help our friends, our family and our loved ones who are grappling with these kinds of thoughts.
You can do this. You can help save a life today by talking to them about suicide.
- You’ll have to just feel this out case-by-case as to how well the conversation’s going, as there’s no sure way to tell. [↩]
- Don’t argue if they deny this, just keep repeating it in different ways. [↩]
- These may range from, “I can’t afford to get help,” to “I’m afraid of what my family will say if they knew I was in treatment.” [↩]