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How do I talk to people about suicide?

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

CW: this blog post talks about suicide and suicidal feelings

In her blog post this weekend, Brooke reminded us that it’s important to check in with the people we care about, because suicidal feelings can be sneaky and hidden. But how do you even do that? How do you start that conversation? Do you go up to your best friend and ask if they feel like killing themselves? It’s an awkward topic, and because it’s heavy and very serious, we can worry about saying the wrong things in fear of making it worse. We freeze, and we don’t say anything, despite our worries. Or maybe we don’t even know it’s something we should ask about - maybe our loved ones seem fine, and we figure that if they’re struggling with their mental health, they’ll tell us. But what if they don’t tell us? For a lot of people, suicidal feelings are shameful, scary, and confusing. People are afraid that if they talk about it, their loved ones will worry about them and they will be a burden, or that folks will judge them, or try to force them to get help they don’t want. Some people live with some level of suicidal feelings all the time, and that’s their normal, so it doesn’t feel like an important thing to mention. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention offers some of the warning signs to look out for in the people in your life, including increased substance use, feelings of hopelessness, and unusual withdrawal from friends and family.

If you’re worried about someone in your life, the best thing you can do is to try and be there for them. You don’t have to ask about suicidal feelings specifically - you can help by being present and checking in, by asking how you can support them, by reminding them that even if they don’t want to talk about it, you are there and you care about them.

That said, if you feel comfortable talking about suicide, it’s okay to ask. You aren’t going to give them any ideas or make them any more likely to act on those feelings. You might actually be taking a weight off their shoulders by showing them that this is something they can safely talk about with you. That might look like straight up asking, “hey, do you ever think about trying to kill yourself?”, or it could be more indirect, like asking if they are safe or if they can keep themselves safe overnight.

If they say yes, they do think about killing themselves, validate their feelings. Reassure them that these feelings are normal and okay, and thank them for sharing it with you. Ask them how you can support them when they’re feeling this way. If they don’t know what they need, make some suggestions - sometimes it helps to go spend physical time together; sometimes emotional support, affirmations, or reassurance are useful; sometimes they might need help with basic tasks like cooking or cleaning. Sometimes people have suicidal feelings that they have no intention of acting on, and just having someone to talk to about it can make a world of difference.

If your person tells you they plan to act on these feelings, it can be very scary and you might feel like it’s your responsibility to keep them safe. You might feel powerless to help them. Ask them about their supports - who else do they have in their life that they can talk to about this? Are they involved with any community organizations or mental health supports that they should reach out to? A general rule of thumb is that you want to avoid involving the police in this as much as possible. Involving police increases the chances of this being a traumatizing experience for everyone involved - but that’s a whole can of worms that deserves its own whole blog post because there’s no way I can capture all the nuance of that within this post. If your loved one doesn’t believe they can keep themselves safe, the last resort is to go to the hospital. Please be aware that going to the hospital is a way to keep your person alive, but they are unlikely to get any kind of meaningful support or help there. They are likely to be kept for hours on a bed or gurney, and eventually discharged with some brochures for mental health supports and maybe a referral to a program with a very long wait list.

What should you avoid? Any kind of blaming or shaming. Don’t make them feel guilty for these feelings. Don’t offer types of support that you can’t follow through on. Don’t make promises about things that are out of your control, and don’t promise perfect secrecy. Don’t panic, and don’t assume that because they have suicidal feelings, they’re going to attempt suicide. Don’t make it about yourself and your feelings - yes, this is really scary for you, but it’s even scarier for them, and it’s not fair to ask your loved one to take care of you while they are in distress themselves. At the same time, try to make sure you’re getting the care you need from your support people. It’s okay and normal for you to have a lot of feelings about this.

Finally, a crucially important thing to remember, in worst case scenarios: no matter what your loved one does after you talk to them, you are not responsible for their actions and it’s not your fault. It’s not about you failing to support them properly. You can’t prevent them from making their own decisions. As much as you love and care about them, their safety is not your responsibility. You have done everything you can.

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