Many people desperately want to know what to say – and what not to say – to someone who is thinking of suicide. The article 10 Things Not to Say to a Suicidal Person is SpeakingOfSuicide.com’s most popular post. Almost a half-million people have viewed it in the last 2½ years. Several hundred have left comments.
Sometimes people complain to me that the post describes what not to say, but it doesn’t say enough about what to say. They’re right. So in this post, I provide 10 things to say to a suicidal person.
First, Some Caveats
Before starting, I want to make some things clear: I came up with this list based on my conversations with suicidal individuals in my work as a clinical social worker, my readings of both clinical literature and accounts by individuals who experienced suicidal crises, and my own past experienceswith suicidal thoughts. Nobody has actually researched systematically the most effective things for friends or family to say to a suicidal person, so opinion and experience are the best we’ve got for now. Results will vary according to different people’s needs and personalities.
I also want to make clear that this list of things to say is not intended to be a script. Instead, I illustrate ways that you can help a suicidal person continue to open up, rather than shutting the person down with a comment that minimizes, invalidates, or even denigrates the person’s experience.
And I want to add that what to say often isn’t nearly as important as how to listen. As I explain in my post “How Would You Listen to a Person on the Roof?”, someone who is thinking of suicide needs to feel understood. Let the person tell their story. Refrain from immediately trying to fix the situation or make the person feel better. These efforts, however well intended, can halt the conversation.
So, with all that said, here are 10 things you can say to someone who tells you that they are considering suicide.
1. “I’m so glad you told me that you’re thinking of suicide.”
When someone discloses suicidal thoughts, some parents, partners, friends and others react with anger (“Don’t be stupid!”), pain (“How could you think of hurting me like that?”), or disbelief (“You can’t be serious.”) Some “freak out.” A suicidal person might then feel a need to comfort the hurt person, provide a defense to the angry person, or retreat internally from the disbelieving person. The person might regret ever having shared in the first place that they were thinking of suicide.
By saying “I’m glad you told me” – or something similar – you convey that you welcome and encourage disclosure of suicidal thoughts, and that you can handle it.
2. “I’m sad you’re hurting like this.”
This simple expression of empathy can go a long way toward validating the person’s pain and soothing a sense of aloneness. There’s no “Oh it’s not so bad,” no “You don’t really mean that,” no “But you have so much going for you,” no other statement denying or minimizing the person’s pain.
3. “What’s going on that makes you want to die?”
This invitation to the suicidal person to tell their story can provide validation, engender a sense of connection, and show that you really want to understand. Ask the person to tell their story. And then, listen. Really listen. To deepen your understanding, follow up with more invitations to share, like “Tell me more.” Show empathy and understanding, too: “That sounds awful” or “I can see why that’s painful.”
4. “When do you think you’ll act on your suicidal thoughts?”
Even if you’re not a mental health professional, you still can ask some basic questions to help understand the person’s risk for suicide. Asking about timing will make the difference between whether you need to call someone immediately for help (for example, if the person says, “I have a gun in my backpack and I’m going to shoot myself during lunch”) or whether you can continue to have leisurely conversation with the person.
5. “What ways do you think of killing yourself?”
This is another risk-assessment question. The answer can help reveal the gravity of the situation. A person who has put a lot of time and thought into suicide methods might be in more danger than someone with a vague wish to be dead, for example.
Understanding the suicide methods that the person has considered also will help you in your efforts to keep the person safe. For example, if you’re a parent and your teenage child discloses suicidal thoughts, knowing that your teenager is considering overdosing on a painkiller alerts you to the need to lock up or throw away all potentially dangerous medications. (See this information from the Center for Youth for ways to make your home safer.)
6. “Do you have access to a gun?”
Even if you think the person doesn’t own a gun or can’t get a hold of one, this information is always important. If the answer is yes, ask the person to consider giving the gun (or a key piece of the gun) to someone, locking the gun up and giving someone the key, or doing something else to make the home gun-free until the danger of suicide goes down. For more information about firearm safety related to suicide risk, also see this gun safety fact sheet.
7. “Help is available.”
By telling the person about help that’s available, you can help them to not feel so alone, helpless, or hopeless. If you are in the U.S., you can give them the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.8255) or the Crisis Text Line (741-741). You also can show them the SpeakingOfSuicide.com Resources page, which lists other resources in the U.S. and worldwide to receive help by phone, email, text, or online chat. If the person who reveals suicidal thoughts to you is your child, take them to a mental health professional or an emergency room for an evaluation.
8. “What can I do to help?”
Definitely tell the person about resources for help, but also make clear that you are available, too, if you’re able to do so. That said, there’s only so much you can do, so if you are feeling solely responsible for keeping the person alive, it’s best to involve others, too.
9. “I care about you, and I would be so sad if you died by suicide.”
Be careful here. In my earlier post, one of the 10 things not to say is, “Don’t you know I would be devastated if you killed yourself? How could you think of hurting me like that?” As I note in that post, “Your loved one already feels awful. Heaping guilt on top of that is not going to help them feel soothed, understood, or welcome to tell you more.”
At the same time, a simple statement of how much you care about or love the person can help nurture a sense of connection, if your statement isn’t an attempt to stop the person from talking further about suicide.
10. “I hope you’ll keep talking to me about your thoughts of suicide.”
Just as you want the person to feel welcome for having shared their suicidal thoughts to you, it’s good to make clear that you would welcome further disclosures, as well. Often, someone who has suicidal thoughts senses from others an expectation to “get over it already.” By inviting the person to come to you again about their suicidal thoughts, you can help prevent isolation and secrecy.
What Are Your Ideas about What to Say to a Suicidal Person?
There are many other helpful responses besides those listed here. If you have thoughts of suicide, what do you wish someone would say to you if you told them? If you have ever helped a suicidal friend or family member, what responses from you seemed to foster sharing, connection, and safety? Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, is the author of “Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals,” a psychotherapist and consultant, and an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.