How to Talk About Suicide

Mikela Hallmark, MS, LPC on Feb 28, 2019 in Mood and Feelings

Noticing that your friend just isn’t the same? Feel like she’s withdrawing or becoming distant from those most dear to her? Worried that she might do something bad, but you’re just not sure what to say? You’re not alone. With the recent losses of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, many people’s minds are on the topic of suicide, and how to intervene with loved ones when they are struggling.

As a society, we are becoming more and more aware that happiness and health in life are not defined by class, race, gender, sexual identity, etc. We can all suffer. We can all struggle with mental health issues. We all deserve help and support.

And, you can begin taking steps towards destigmatizing thoughts of suicide within your circle of influence. You can begin working to support your loved ones by recognizing the warning signs and taking steps to intervene.

The first step is recognizing warning signs for suicide. These can include but are not limited to:

  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Self-hatred
  • Changes in mood
  • Researching suicide or gaining access to lethal means of ending one’s life by suicide
  • Thoughts of death
  • Anger
  • Giving things away, closing things out, making amends, saying goodbye, getting thing sin order
  • Risk taking
  • Substance use
  • Withdrawal
  • Sudden calm or positive change in mood after period of depression

But who knows the perfect thing to say? Honestly, there isn’t a perfect thing. For years I’ve worked with clients who experienced suicidal thoughts. In all of my learning and research, I have not found a perfect solution, formula, intervention that works 100% of the time. As a society, we have to acknowledge that, and the mental health community is doing a lot of work to find even more effective solutions for suicide. There is more work to be done, and your decision to educate yourself about how to respond is a great way to involve yourself with changing stigmas around mental health issues, and work to support saving lives.

Even though there’s no perfect answer for how to prevent suicide, I’m glad to share that there are things we have learned about suicide. There are ways that you can intervene. Here are a few tips for responding when you recognize someone is displaying warning signs.

1. The last thing you want to do is avoid talking about it. Many people are afraid to mention suicide or self-harm because they fear this will perpetuate the issue. However, secrecy isolation and judgment breed shame and shame can definitely bring on some major mental health issues. So, don’t avoid talking about it.

2. Start the conversation. It may feel uncomfortable or tough, but you can do this. People experiencing suicidal thoughts are in need of help. You might open up by saying ‘I’ve been noticing you haven’t seemed yourself lately, and I wanted to check in’, or ‘I’m concerned about you. What’s been going on lately?’ or ‘I’m worried. Share with me what’s been on your mind.’

3. Offer a safe place for people to open up. It’s difficult to really talk about mental health concerns or thoughts of suicide, and a judgmental person or a person who freaks out or panics is definitely not the most likely for people to feel comfortable talking with. Stay calm when discussing these issues. Don’t judge. Tips on what not to do include: don’t promise to keep it a secret, don’t leave the person until they have professional help. Do keep the conversation going by asking how you might be able to best support them right now.

4. Ask the question in a way that allows the person to provide a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer so you know you are on the same page. You can ask something like ‘are you thinking about ending your life?’ or ‘are you thinking about suicide?’ Regardless of the answer, remember the person may still be in danger and you are concerned for a reason. A couple of tips on how NOT to ask the question include don’t say things like ‘you’re not thinking about suicide are you?’ This can sound judgmental.

5. Destigmatize. The more we understand that mental health issues are common, the more we are accepting that they are happening to us. Help the person feel accepted, validated, and normal in their difficulties. And help them understand there is plenty of help and that you’re willing to support them.

6. Offer a listening ear. Many people need to share. Need connection. Need care. Listen, Validate (i.e. ‘that makes sense that you are struggling’), and offer support (i.e. ‘how can I help?’)

7. Help promote hope. Many people who struggle with thoughts of ending their lives feel hopeless. There are many options, treatments, interventions, programs, supports that are available. Help the person sense hope. Do not negate what they are feeling. Tell them that’s not really what they want. Or choose not to take them seriously. Just help them feel the sense of hope that you are supportive and there are options.

8. Don’t leave. If the person is having suicidal thoughts, stay with them until they find professional help and assist them with making a plan to get help. They may benefit from having help finding a counselor who is on their insurance panel, or finding a counselor who is free, or finding a support group in the area.

9. Respond to critical situations. If the person is still concerning you, if you feel the situation is dangerous or critical, if the person has a plan for suicide, or is intent on ending their life by suicide call 9-1-1 or take them to the emergency room. This is not always an easy decision to make, but safety is the #1 priority here. If any person is in imminent danger, if the person has a weapon, if you feel the person will harm themselves or someone else or yourself, call 9-1-1.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line (text 741741 for 24 hour support)

Mikela Hallmark is a Counselor in Atlanta, GA.

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