Health & Wellness

How to Talk to Someone Who is Suicidal

Sep. 18, 2023

The subject of suicide is often veiled in stigma and misunderstanding. Yet, as the rate of suicide continues to climb, reaching its highest level since World War I, the importance of open, honest conversation around this critical issue has never been greater.

This comprehensive guide aims to equip you with the knowledge and resources to talk to someone who is suicidal or a suicide loss survivor. We'll delve into key topics like mental health, immediate danger signs, and the role of mental health professionals in suicide prevention.

Infographic detailing the increase in suicide rates over the last three years.

Table of Contents

  1. Understanding the Language of Suicide
  2. Words to Avoid and Alternatives
  3. Understanding the Importance of Mental Health
  4. How to Talk to Someone Who is Suicidal
  5. Recognizing the Warning Signs
  6. The Role of Mental Health Professionals
  7. Immediate Danger: What to Do
  8. Suicide Prevention Resources
  9. What to Say to a Suicide Loss Survivor
  10. Conclusion

Understanding the Language of Suicide: Important Terms You Should Know

Before diving into how to approach conversations about suicide, it's crucial to understand the terminology. Familiarizing yourself with these terms will make you more confident in speaking about this sensitive subject.

Suicide The act of intentionally causing one's own death.

Suicide Attempt An action carried out with the intent of ending one's life.

Self-harm Deliberate actions to cause physical harm to oneself, which may or may not include suicidal intent.

Suicide Loss Survivor Someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.

Risk Factor Elements that increase the likelihood of an individual contemplating suicide. This can include mental health issues, substance abuse, and family history, among others.

Suicidal Thoughts/Ideation The thoughts an individual has about ending their own life.

Means and Methods "Means" refers to the instruments used in the act of suicide, like medication or weapons. "Methods" are the actions chosen to commit the act, such as overdosing or drowning.

Words to Avoid: Stigmatizing Language and its Alternatives

Using the right language is not just a matter of political correctness; it's a matter of life and death. Certain terms can contribute to the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health, making it even harder for people to seek help.

Commit Suicide The term "commit" implies criminality. Opt for "died by suicide" or "death by suicide" instead.

Completed or Successful Suicide These terms suggest a desired outcome, which is misleading. Use the term "suicide" to describe the act.

Failed Suicide Attempt This phrase can be demeaning. Simply refer to it as a "suicide attempt."

Suicidality This term is often used to describe both suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior, which are distinct. Use "suicidal thoughts" or "suicidal behavior" to be more specific.

Non-Fatal Suicide This term is contradictory. Use "suicide attempt" instead.

Understanding the Importance of Mental Health

The increasing rate of suicide is deeply connected to mental health issues. Studies suggest that up to 90% of individuals who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of their death. This alarming statistic underscores the importance of mental health in the context of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

How to Talk to Someone Who is Suicidal

The conversation about suicidal thoughts is undoubtedly one of the most difficult you may ever have. But it's also one of the most crucial. If someone confides in you about experiencing suicidal thoughts, your response can make a significant difference in their decision to seek professional help.

Listening is Key

One of the most important things you can do is listen. Offer support in a non-judgmental manner and ensure that they know you're taking their feelings seriously. The act of listening itself can be a powerful form of emotional support.

Be Direct, Yet Sensitive

If you're concerned that someone might be suicidal, but they haven't expressed it openly, it's vital to ask direct questions. It may feel awkward, but most people who are suicidal need someone to initiate that life-saving conversation. Research shows that asking direct questions about suicidal thoughts does not encourage the act but can offer a lifeline to someone in crisis.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

Understanding the warning signs of suicidal thoughts is essential for timely intervention. If you notice any of these signs in someone, it may indicate that they are in immediate danger and require professional support.

Navigating Judgments and Negative Responses

Avoid judgments. Never say something negative or judgmental. Remind them about how much you care and understand and how you will be there to help them get through anything.

Leading Them to Professional Help

Remind them of available resources and professional support. Let them know that sharing their thoughts with you is a good indication that they are ready to talk to a mental health expert.

Changes in Behavior and Mood

One of the first signs that someone is struggling with mental health and possibly contemplating suicide is a noticeable change in behavior or mood. This could include withdrawal from friends and family, expressing feelings of hopelessness, or sudden mood swings.

Verbal Cues

Pay attention to what the person is saying. If they talk about feeling trapped, unbearable pain, or explicitly mention wanting to die, these are immediate red flags that require urgent action.

Access to Lethal Means

The availability of lethal means like firearms, medications, or other dangerous items can escalate the risk of attempting suicide.

Mental health professional providing emotional support to a patient.

The Role of a Mental Health Professional

If someone is showing signs of suicidal thoughts, the next step is to contact a mental health professional. These experts are trained to provide confidential emotional support and assess the level of immediate danger the person may be in.

Psychiatrists and Psychologists
Psychiatrists and psychologists can offer professional support through various treatment options, including medication and therapy. Studies suggest that proper treatment can significantly reduce the risk of suicide.

Counselors and Therapists
For individuals who may not require medication, counselors and therapists can offer valuable emotional support and coping strategies.

List of emergency numbers for immediate danger related to suicidal thoughts.

Immediate Danger: What to Do

If you believe someone is in immediate or imminent danger of taking their own life, act quickly. Do not leave the person alone, remove any lethal means from their vicinity, and seek emergency help.

Contacting Crisis Lines

In the U.S., the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988), the UC Health Psychiatric Emergency Service (513-584-8577), and the UC Health Mobile Crisis Team *for Hamilton County Residents* (513-584-5098) are invaluable resources for immediate assistance.

Hospital Emergency Rooms

If you're in a situation where the danger is acute, taking the person to an emergency room for professional help is a wise decision.

How to Talk to a Suicide Loss Survivor

Understanding the Complexity of Loss and Grief

Many people assume that a suicide loss survivor doesn't want to talk about their loved one because it's too painful. While that can be true, quite often the opposite is the case. Losing someone to suicide is confusing and emotionally devastating. The "why" of the event often remains unknown, leading to additional emotional turmoil.

Be a Safe Space: When Silence Speaks Louder Than Words

Even if you're at a loss for words, your presence can be comforting. Make it clear that you're there for them, whether they want to talk about the person they've lost or simply need a patient listener.

No Comparisons: Each Grief Journey is Unique

Even if you are a suicide loss survivor yourself, remember that everyone's experience and journey with grief are different. Avoid saying that you know what they're going through. Instead, reassure them that you're there to support them if and when they want to talk.

Sensitivity Matters: Avoiding Inquisitive Pitfalls

With suicide deaths, the manner of death is often not discussed outside the immediate family. If you're unaware of how the person died, it's best not to ask. Allow the survivor to share details on their own terms.

Honoring the Person Who Passed Away

Don't shy away from talking about the individual who has passed away. Ask the loss survivor about their favorite memories, or moments that made them laugh. Talking about the deceased often helps in the grieving process.

Steering Clear of Harmful Clichés

Phrases like "they're in a better place now" or "this too shall pass" might seem comforting but can be incredibly hurtful and minimize the grief of the survivor. Always opt for offering non-judgmental emotional support.

The Act of Suicide: A No-Judgment Zone

When discussing the act of suicide, avoid describing it as selfish, weak-minded, or sinful. Such judgments can compound the emotional pain survivors are already experiencing.

Lifting the Burden of Blame

It's common for suicide loss survivors to wonder if they could have done something to prevent the death. However, it's essential to understand and communicate that nobody is to blame for another person's decision to take their own life.

Offering Sustained Support: Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond

Being supportive doesn't end after the funeral services. Grief doesn't have a set timeline. Offer your support consistently, even months or years after the event. This is when the weight of reality often sinks in, and the survivor has to navigate a new normal.

Supportive Resources for Suicide Prevention

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, numerous resources can offer professional help and emotional support.

Helplines and Crisis Centers

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988) the UC Health Psychiatric Emergency Service (513-584-8577), and the UC Health Mobile Crisis Team *for Hamilton County Residents* (513-584-5098) are excellent starting points.

Online Forums and Communities

Sometimes, community support can be invaluable. Online forums dedicated to mental health issues can offer a sense of community and understanding that might be lacking elsewhere.

Local Mental Health Services

Local services often offer resources ranging from professional counseling to support groups for those who have lost a loved one to suicide or are struggling with mental health issues themselves.

Vigil for National Suicide Prevention Month.

Conclusion: Breaking the Silence to Save Lives

Suicide prevention is a collective effort that starts with being willing to have difficult conversations. Whether you're worried about someone who may be contemplating suicide or speaking to a loss survivor, the key is to offer support and take action if the person is in immediate danger.

This National Suicide Prevention Month, let's commit to breaking the silence and actively participating in conversations that could save lives. Research shows that education, awareness, and professional help can make a significant impact on reducing suicide rates.