It’s a myth that talking about suicide encourages someone to do it.
Suicide is not an easy conversation topic. You might even feel like it’s taboo—but it’s a myth that talking about suicide encourages someone to do it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Giving someone an opportunity to talk to you about how they’re feeling is a positive step toward recovery, and it can help them get the help they need.
So if a loved one opens up to you about suicidal ideation, it’s natural to feel awkward, scared, or speechless, but the important thing is to be an active listener and help your friend or family member feel heard. You might feel pressure to have a great nugget of advice to offer, but asking questions is often more helpful than dishing advice.
Here are five tips to make the conversation a little easier if a loved one opens up to you about suicide or suicidal ideation:
1. Don’t shut the conversation down
Again, it’s a good thing that your loved one is opening up about their feelings. Be careful about making comments that indirectly shut down the conversation, such as “It’s not that bad,” or “Don’t say that stuff.”
2. Let them share their feelings—without judgment
It’s not helpful for you to decide if their feelings are “right” or “wrong.” Instead, acknowledge and sympathize with their feelings—even if you think the thoughts are dark, negative, or even skewed.
3. Ask questions
Asking your loved one to elaborate on how they’re feeling is often more helpful than making profound statements or giving groundbreaking advice. It helps the person feel heard and listened to, and this might be the first time someone has shown an interest in their feelings.
Try questions like:
- When did you start feeling this way?
- Did something happen to make you feel this way?
- How can I support you right now?
- Have you talked to anyone else about this?
4. Remind them that their struggles or feelings are temporary
Be careful: Avoid statements like “You’ll be fine.” Comments like this can come off as dismissive and shut the conversation down. You want to say something hopeful, such as:
- “It sounds like you’re dealing with a lot right now, but hard times like this tend to come and go.”
- “You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change.”
- “Just take it one day at a time.”
5. Evaluate the suicide risk
If you ever suspect suicide from a loved one, it’s important to assess the level of risk. Don’t be afraid to be direct: Ask your loved one if they have a plan for suicide. If the person is having suicidal ideation but doesn’t have a plan and says they won’t attempt suicide, the risk is low or moderate, and offering support and encouraging them to reach out to a therapist is a good move.
If the person is having suicidal thoughts and has a plan that is very specific and highly lethal, the risk is high or severe. If the situation is urgent, stay with the person, and take away any weapons. Call 911 or a crisis center, or take the person to the emergency room.
You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. It’s available 24/7, even on holidays.
Don’t feel bad for feeling awkward or uncomfortable during the conversation—just remember that care and compassion go a long way.