Has Someone Told You About Their Suicidal Thoughts?
People are hurting, and the most effective way to intervene is to be a caring presence in that person’s life. If someone confides in you that they are suicidal, you have been given the opportunity to take action. First of all, you are a safe place for this person. Seriously, pat yourself on the back for a moment because this is a very important role. But also, you have been given a responsibility to respond carefully and wisely.
Have you noticed that you are hearing more and more about suicide lately? It’s not your imagination. Suicide has become an epidemic in our culture. According to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression and suicide among kids ages 14-17 increased by more than 60 percent, ages 12-13 increased by 47 percent, and ages 18-21 by 46 percent.
What to Say to a Suicidal Person
We have compiled a list of healthy and helpful ways to respond if someone chooses to confide in you their suicidal thoughts. Your job as the recipient of such information is to listen well, to keep the conversation going without shutting them down or diminishing their feelings, and to get outside help if you realize it is needed.
Here’s our best list:
1. “You may not want to exist right now, but I am so happy that you do.”
This is one of my favorite initial responses. First of all it acknowledges what they said about not wanting to be alive. But this response also dispels the lie that most suicidal people are believing: that their existence doesn’t really matter to anyone. You are one real person who can say that you are happy that they are alive and your life would not be the same if they were not. Let them know that the world would be worse without them in it. Affirm that their existence is important to YOU.
2. “You’re not alone in this. We will get through this together.”
They need to know that they confided in the right person. People who are suicidal usually feel isolated and alone. Like they are the only one who feels this way. Maybe they believe that they have to make it better on their own. Knowing that you are not going to allow them to walk this road alone is comforting. They need to know that you will help them get better. Chances are they are afraid of what they might do to themselves. It is comforting to know that you will not allow them to hurt themselves and you will find a way to help them get well. And then please please please stick with them. Check in regularly, daily, even hourly, as necessary.
3. “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and I want to help.”
Acknowledging that you do not know how they feel, but that you do care, is validating. Many times people minimize what they’ve heard by saying things like, “Everyone goes through times like this” or “Your life isn’t that bad.” Instead, say that you don’t understand how they feel. You have not felt the same darkness they are feeling. Telling them you do care and you are here to help will give them hope. And hope is the key to navigating the way out of this dark hole.
4. “Talk to me. I am listening.” “Tell me more.”
What you say is not as important as how you listen. Listen, listen, listen. And then listen some more. Bite your tongue until they are done talking if necessary.
5. “What’s going on that makes you want to die?”
Inviting them to tell their story provides both validation of their feelings and connection with another human being. Maintain the connection, keep them opening up, keep them talking. Allow them to tell you their feelings without reacting in fear or shock. Then respond with things like, “I can see why that is painful” or “That sounds awful.” Allow people to tell their stories and then validate their pain.
6. If they have not already said it out loud, ask them “Are you thinking of suicide?”
Don’t be afraid to say the word. You may be afraid to say the “S” word, but doing so probably will give them relief. It shows them that you are not shocked, you don’t think they are crazy, and it will give them an opportunity to talk finally about it.
7. “Do you have a plan to kill yourself?”
This question allows you to assess the severity of the situation. If they do have a plan and the means to carry it out, call for outside help. If they are in immediate danger, call 911. If not, you can continue the conversation and walk them through the next steps toward healing. I would recommend seeing a counselor or a doctor. Although thoughts of suicide are common, they are not normal and are a sign that you need help, emotionally, spiritually, and maybe physically. In the same way we would see a doctor for pain in our abdomen—it is a sign that something is not right—we should also see someone for pain in our emotional life. It is simply a sign that something needs attention.
Life is hard
Life is hard, you guys. It just is sometimes. If you are in a dark place, please just tell someone. You can chat right now here. Most people have gone through seasons of struggle and depression. When it gets the point of suicide ideation, it is scary for everyone involved. The bad news is, with rates of depression and suicide rising, we all will probably encounter someone who verbalizes their desire not to be here anymore. The good news is, each of us has the opportunity to be a light in the darkness. We have the opportunity to provide care, a listening ear, love, intervention and especially hope for better days and healing ahead.
***This list is not definitive, but it is a list of things that we have learned based upon our experience and frankly, our opinion. If you have other things to add to this list that have been helpful for you to hear in your own season of darkness, please email us and let us know. We really would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Kerry D’Ortenzio