6 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Suicidal thoughts should always be taken seriously, whether someone is actively or passively thinking about ending their life.
When someone is having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to be direct, show empathy and listen without judgment.
It’s equally important to avoid criticizing or dismissing someone who shares they’re thinking about suicide.
No one is really prepared to hear that someone close to them is thinking about suicide (sometimes referred to as ‘suicidal ideation’). If a friend or loved one has confided that they’ve considered ending their own life, you may not be sure what to say or do. We’re here to help.
Let’s look at some of the warning signs that someone is at risk of suicide, what to say and do, and what not to say and do if someone you care about is struggling.
There are a number of factors that can increase someone’s risk of suicide. For example:
Traumatic or painful life experiences, past or present, such as: abuse, childhood trauma, job loss, divorce or breakup or death of a loved one
Family history of suicide
Previous thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
Mental or physical health issues
Sudden or significant changes in behavior can also be a warning sign that your friend is at risk. For example:
If they seem more irritable or more easily angered
If they’re avoiding social interaction – for example, withdrawing from friends or favorite activities
If they’re engaging in reckless or high-risk activities
If they’re having problems sleeping
If they’re showing up late to work, have lost interest in school, or there’s been a general drop in their motivation
If they express feelings of hopelessness or start talking about death or suicide
If they start saying or doing things that feel like a permanent goodbye
If you observe any of these warning signs, don’t put off saying something. We’ll get into what you can say below to help a friend who is suicidal.
Suicidal ideation – that is, having thoughts, ideas, or plans about suicide – can vary in intensity. Many experts recognize two broad categories of suicidal ideation:
Passive suicidal ideation: when someone talks about not wanting to be around anymore (e.g., “it would be easier if I just didn’t wake up tomorrow”)
Active suicidal ideation: when someone has active thoughts about wanting to end their life (e.g., “I’ve been thinking I should just end things”)
Important: Both active and passive suicidal ideation should be taken very seriously. Whether your friend has concrete plans to end their life or is vaguely considering it, it’s essential you believe them – and it’s crucial you take action.
To encourage your friend to open up, try asking questions that require more than a one-word answer. For example:
"How are things going at home/work/school?"
"You seem like you’ve been having a rough time lately – are you doing ok?"
This is not the time for beating around the bush. If you’re worried your friend is thinking about suicide, ask them straight up: Are you having thoughts about suicide?
Asking this question will not “plant the idea” of suicide in someone’s mind, so don’t be afraid to ask. There’s strong evidence that asking direct can free someone from the burden of keeping suicidal thoughts a secret. And, there’s no harm done if they’re not.
If your friend says they have been thinking about suicide, gently push a little deeper. (And don’t worry, we’ll address what to do if this is the case in a moment.) Here are some follow-up questions to ask:
“Have you thought about where or how you would kill yourself?”
“Are you worried you might do something to hurt yourself now?”
“How long have you been feeling this way?”
“Have you had these thoughts before?”
“Have you attempted suicide before?”
Asking specific, detailed questions is vital to find out if they’re in danger right now – for example, if they’ve started making a plan or taking steps toward ending their life. No matter what, be sure to take everything they share seriously.
This will not be an easy conversation. It can be very upsetting to hear someone close to you talk about ending their life. You may feel a lot of things while talking with them, but it’s essential to listen without judgement or criticism. Just remember. As hard as it may be, it’s easier to find out early and have the power to act, than not.
It’s just as important to listen with empathy. You may not be able to relate to what they’re going through, but you can show you care about them. Try repeating back some of what they say (but in your own words) to make sure you’ve understood them correctly. This will also help them to feel heard.
Just remember: as hard as this conversation may be, it’s better to find out early that someone you love is thinking about suicide – when you have the power to act. Don’t leave it until it’s too late.
You don’t need to resort to clichés or easy answers (more on these in a moment). Just let them know you’ve got their back. Chances are, your friend or loved one is feeling extremely raw and vulnerable right now.
Here are some examples of what you can say.
Validate what they’re feeling: “I’m sorry things have been so hard lately. You’ve been going through a lot.”
Remind them they’re not alone: “A lot of people think about suicide. It’s good to talk about what you’re feeling, and I’m glad that you’ve told me.”
Make sure they know you’re here: “I care about you, and I’m here to listen and support. I’m not going anywhere.”
Let them know there’s hope: “I know it doesn’t feel this way now, but it can get better. We will get you the help you need.”
There are plenty of things you can and should say to someone who’s contemplating suicide. But there are also a few things you should be careful to avoid saying.
“You shouldn’t feel this way.”
“But you have so much to live for.”
“Things aren’t as bad as you think.”
Using guilt to try to talk someone out of suicide will only add to their emotional distress. Avoid saying things like:
“Suicide is selfish.”
“Why would you do that to the people who care about you?”
“Imagine how it would make me feel if you took your own life.”
Trivializing suicidal thoughts can make the person having them feel even more isolated and alone. You should always take it seriously when someone tells you they’re thinking about suicide. Never assume that it’s a ploy for attention or that they’re making things sound worse than they really are.
Here are a few examples of dismissive statements to avoid:
“You just need to change your perspective.”
“You’re just trying to get attention.”
“Yeah but you wouldn’t really go through with it.”
“It’ll pass tomorrow, I promise.”
The mental health charity Beyond Blue has some good advice on what stigmatizing language to avoid using when talking about suicide. Terms like these, for example, should never be used:
“Successful suicide” (or “unsuccessful suicide”)
Instead of terms like these, use phrases such as “died by suicide,” “ended their life,” or “attempted to end their life.” A popular term being used on social media platforms such as TikTok is “unalived themselves”.
When someone is thinking about suicide, it’s important to go beyond words. Here are a few things you can do to offer practical help.
Keep the door open to conversation, but let them walk through it when they’re ready. You can’t force someone to talk about suicide, but you can remind them you’re here to listen whenever they feel like opening up.
You could offer to help them find someone to talk to, or accompany them to their first appointment. Just remember, you can’t force them to talk to a therapist about their suicidal thoughts. Don’t be surprised if your friend doesn’t jump at the opportunity to seek professional care – it can take time.
For example, you can encourage your friend to have a list of people and/or organizations they can contact if their suicidal thoughts escalate. (See below for a helpful list of suicide hotlines.)
Important: if your friend is in immediate danger (or your suspect that they might act on their thoughts of suicide), do not leave them on their own. Help them get to the nearest crisis center or emergency room, or call a psychiatric triage service or emergency services.
Check in regularly to see how your friend is feeling. Don’t make every conversation about suicide, but continue periodically and specifically about suicide until the person is doing well again.
Whatever you do, don’t disappear. Your friend needs to know you’re in their corner, even (and especially) when things feel hopeless.
When making a plan to check in on them, give specific times and dates, rather than a vague “I’ll call” – and make sure you show up.
Many countries have emergency suicide hotlines you can call if you or someone you know is suicidal. If someone’s in immediate danger, call your local emergency number.
Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988
Emergency number: 911
Talk Suicide: 833-456-4566 (or text 45645)
Emergency number: 911
National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 0800 689 5652
Emergency number: 999
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Emergency number: 000
You don’t have to have all the answers to help a friend or loved one who’s experiencing thoughts of suicide. You can make a difference with your presence and ongoing support for them.