It’s likely you are reading this and you’ve already had the conversation and you are wondering if you “said the right thing.” I want you to know that if you listened with empathy, even if you didn’t say the perfect thing, the other person probably felt heard. Just listening can diffuse an intense suicide thought process. Connection is the antidote to suicide.
This will be a guide that will help you with what you say in that moment. when someone, a friend or loved one, has told you they are struggling with thoughts of suicide.
What do you say? Let them know you heard them.
You do not want to say, “You have so much to live for,” or “Let me tell you about the time I …….” This is not about fixing the problem or talking about how you solved one but connecting with the person and their pain which is intensely real to that individual.
This person has made the absolute most sensitive and vulnerable confession and you should be honored someone saw you as a person that could be trusted with that information. Someone has reached out. To you. That says something about you. Take a cleansing breath. You will be OK. Just listening is effective. Don’t focus on fixing. We want to try to help them save their own life and keep them safe for right then.
Listen and be willing to be uncomfortable
You will be sitting with someone in pain which may have periods of silence that make you uncomfortable. Heck, all of this is uncomfortable. You will feel unqualified and just know that you will feel this way and it’s natural. That’s human.
Connect with the pain and/or show gratefulness
“I’m honored you trust me enough to share this with me.”
“Thank you for sharing this with me. I’m so grateful.”
“I’m so sorry you feel so much pain. Tell me more.”
“How long have you felt this way?”
“This is serious. You are really struggling. Can you share more with me?”
“I am here to listen. Keep talking and tell me how you feel.”
“It sounds as though you feel you can’t live with pain this intense.”
“I’m so grateful you have told me this. That took so much courage. Keep talking. I’m listening.”
“I hear you saying that life just doesn’t seem to matter to you right now.”
They may list a whole litany of issues that can’t be resolved all right then or might even propose something that might be unlikely to happen. Right then is not the time to disagree because it’s what got them in this very intense moment.
So if they say something like, “I need to see if my wife will take me back. I’m sure she will once she sees how I’ve changed.” We have no idea what might or might not happen. But the appropriate response is, “It sounds as if you are thinking about your future, doubtful about suicide, and want to explore options. So let’s discuss how to keep you safe right now.”
“I’m right here with you right now. We’ll figure this out together.”
“You have to be very frightened. I am here to listen and help. We’ll figure this out.”
“Permission to give you a hug?” (If appropriate situation.)
“Let’s call the local hotline right now and see what our next step might be. I’m right here with you to help keep you safe.” Keep in mind that if they’ve been through this before they might have fear of police or other first responders. So work with them to talk about options that they feel comfortable taking part in.
“Did you have a plan?” If they answer this question, make note of what that was because you’ll want to follow up and remove means to minimize the chances of suicide. Those suffering suicidal thoughts won’t often come up with a new idea. (Removing means = examples include finding someone to legally “babysit” a firearm off-site until the situation is stabilized or removing medications.)
“I’m not certain what to do next but I assure you I’m here with you now and want to keep you safe. We’ll figure this out together.”
Connect them with help, a parent, counselor whenever possible.
Careful not to make someone feel as if you are uncomfortable and can’t wait to pass them off to someone else. Typically, the intensity of suicidal thoughts lasts an average of 20 minutes-2.5 hours.
“Can we call your husband? I want him to know you need extra support right now.” (The person to call can be a parent, sister, school counselor.) In some cases, they might need a hospital but this is typically a last resort. However, if they are not responding much, or curled up in a corner, for example, ask them to go with you to the mental health hospital keeping in mind your own safety, of course.
“You have expressed doubt about suicide. So can we agree to help keep you safe right now?”
“We can’t focus or worry about all those problems at once or right now. Your only job at this moment is to keep yourself safe from suicide. Let’s call ______________” (This can be a local resource or a national hotline or text line. Numbers below.)
“I can’t promise that I will keep this secret. But you can trust that I will be discreet. I want to connect you with someone who is more educated on the topic and trained to help keep you safe from suicide.”
“Let’s call the local mental health hotline now together and see what they recommend.” (Local number is good. National hotline if that’s all you have.)
“I understand that you are feeling safe from suicide right now but I want to connect you with someone who knows next steps then I’d like to follow up with you later after I connect you with your [mom, dad, sister, teacher etc.] Is that OK?”
Follow up later.
“I wanted to check in with you and see how you are today?“
“How can I help you connect with some additional help?”
“I am so grateful you confided in me. Let’s meet for lunch.”
Possibilities for resources to connect them with are a local or national mental health hotline, a state mental health resource, an employee assistance program, school nurse or school counselor. It might be the person is already under the care of a mental health professional which would be a good contact to make.
Other posts that might help:
- ‘My son has admitted he is suicidal. What do I do now?’
- What is the “wrong” thing to say to someone thinking of suicide?“
- Suicide Resources
- To those who think, ‘I’m not qualified to talk to someone who is suicidal’
USA Crisis Text 741-741
US Crisis Line for LGBTQ Youth 1-866-488-7386
US Crisis Text for LGBTQ Youth 678-678
USA TransLifeline 1-833-456-4566
United Kingdom Samaritans 116 123
Australia Crisis Line 13 11 14
Canada Crisis Line 1-833-456-4566
Canada TransLifeline 877-330-6366
International suicide hotlines