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9 Ways You Can Get the Conversation Started About Suicide

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month and a good reminder that we need to keep working on finding ways to help people through this problem.

Asking someone if they are suicidal or experiencing thoughts of death can be difficult. So often we don’t know what to say, and so we say nothing. We also worry that, by mentioning it, we will somehow “put the idea into their head.” The truth is, though, that talking about it can be one of the greatest deterrents.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to offer some ways to get the conversation started, which can hopefully make it a little bit easier.

1. “I remember in the past you told me you have a diagnosis of depression. I know one of the symptoms of that can be thoughts of death or suicide. Do you ever struggle with that?” 

Phrasing it in this manner takes any guilt and blame off of the person, and places it squarely on the shoulders of the disorder, where it should be.

2. “I’ve noticed you’ve been posting some dark stuff on social media, and I’m worried you may not be doing well.” 

Social media can be a good window into how someone is doing emotionally. Not everyone expresses it this way, but there are those of us who do. Instead of ignoring it as attention seeking, or allowing the person to brush it off as “just a joke,” ask them how they truly are. 

3. “Do you have thoughts of ending your life?” 

This is a good one if you are feeling the need to have a conversation, but struggle to use the word “suicide.” While we shouldn’t be afraid to use it, it’s OK if you choose to express it in a different manner, especially if it gets the dialogue started.

4. Share your own experience if you feel comfortable doing so, and ask them if they’ve ever felt the same way. 

Telling another person you have experienced thoughts of suicide and you overcame them can be a huge relief. It takes away the shame and aloneness and can offer hope that getting better is possible.

5. “Do you have a safety plan for when you become overwhelmed with emotion?”

You may have a person in your life who you know has difficulty regulating their emotions, and who may also express their pain through self-harm. It can be a really great idea to have a written safety plan in such situations. There are many templates available online and in self-help books. If appropriate, you can offer to help them write it out, or encourage them to work on it in therapy.

6. “I am concerned for your safety.”

This seemingly simple phrase does a number of things. It shows the person that you are aware they are struggling, that they are worthy of concern and that you care. This can then lead to my next point.

7. “Are there any ways I can help you to be safe?” Offer suggestions if nothing comes out.

It’s always important to give each individual the courtesy of choice and independence. What you think they might need may not be the same as what they think.  Some suggestions may be to remove harmful objects/substances, to go for emergency evaluation, make an appointment with the primary caregiver, and so on.

8. Call a hotline or use a support chat. Together or alone.

If there comes a time you feel truly lost for words, try calling a hotline or using an online support chat. You can do this on your own in order to get resources and information for the person in question. It can also serve as an important type of self-care, where you too get to talk about your emotions in this situation. Similarly, if you find your friend has difficulty opening up to you, they may do better talking with a stranger. Making contact on support lines can be scary, so an option may be to make the call together, and then leave the room once they have gotten through.

9. “What I’m hearing from you is that you feel unsafe and that you are in immediate danger of suicide. I think it would be best at this point to get help from the emergency services.”

If there is a clear imminent danger, either expressed or not, it is likely necessary to get emergency help. The person may not be happy with you, but it’s better than possibly losing them. Repeating things they have told you back to them and then saying it might be time to get help is an empathetic way of doing this. If you are unsure if the person meets the level of an emergency, it’s OK to call the appropriate number and ask what should be done.

I hope these nine suggestions have given you some ideas for how to have a conversation if someone is feeling suicidal.  Within all of them is an important aspect of treating the individual with dignity, and not blaming or shaming them for their struggle.

Do you have any other suggestions or methods? Has someone asked you this question in a particularly helpful manner? Please share below. And as always, remember to take time to care for yourself too. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Originally published: September 27, 2018
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