How to Have a More Responsible Conversation About Suicide

A psychotherapist explains the signs to look out for, and how to respond.

Gustavo Miguel Fernandes/ Shutterstock
Gustavo Miguel Fernandes/ Shutterstock

As we approach National Suicide Prevention Week, it’s important to remind ourselves of just how important the issue of suicide is, and the larger topic of mental health.  

Suicidal thoughts and mental illness are real and they should never be taken lightly. Suicide rates, according to a recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) report, are up 25% over the past two decades and is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. We must take action to de-stigmatize mental illness and people should know that suicide is preventable and suicidal thoughts do pass with time. 

Here’s what to do if you feel suicidal:

Think deeper than your initial surface level feelings. Ask yourself if you really want to die, or do you just want all your problems to go away? For many suicidal patients, the latter is the case, and the pain that they’re feeling at the time far outweighs their resources for coping.

Make a distinction between thoughts and action. How we think and how we act are often at odds. The best thing to do is to wait. Put some distance between how you feel and any negative action you’re thinking of taking. So often things look and feel much different after some time has passed. Allow yourself a waiting period at which point you’ll reevaluate.

Talk to someone, perhaps a trusted friend, family member, spiritual leader, or doctor. Reach out to the person now and remember, a true friend wants to you to be healthy.

Don’t drink or do drugs. Doing so will impair your judgment and worsen feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Be hopeful. Have confidence that dark days do turn brighter and people are remarkably resilient.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and speak with someone.

Call 911 if you feel you’re in an emergency situation.

Here are the warning signs:

1. Talking about suicide or death. Comments such as: “I wish I were dead,” “I can’t go on anymore,” “Soon you won’t have to worry about me,” or “People don’t care about me,” should not be ignored.

2. There are behavioral changes. The person recently went through a break up, loss, or other life change.

3. Looking at methods. Internet searches and preparation such as hoarding pills or obtaining a gun should be considered very serious actions.

4. Talking about a specific plan. This suggests that not only does the person feel suicidal, but they have taken it to the next step: a plan to end their life.

5. The person feels hopeless, desperate, trapped and as though he or she is a burden to others. There may be references to death through writing, music, or conversation. Pay particular attention to the person’s social media posts.

6. The person feels victimized, rejected, and has lost interest in activities they once enjoyed.

Here’s what to do if you know someone who might be suicidal:

1. Take any signs or mention of suicide very seriously. People don’t usually mention suicide unless they feel it or are depressed. Both warrant action on your part.

2. Be gentle and direct and state your concerns. You might say, “I am very concerned about you feeling suicidal and want to help you.” Ask if they have thought about harming themselves and if they have a plan and a method. This will help the person to feel cared for and less alone. Do not worry about asking such questions as they will not push a person to suicide.

3. Ask if they are under the care of a professional or taking medication. If there is a health care provider, ask if you can reach out to that person and schedule an appointment for them.

4. Don’t argue with the person, downplay how they feel, or preach. Avoid statements like, “You have so much going for you.” This will come across as dismissive of how they feel and unhelpful. Stress that you care for them and want to help.

5. If the person is in crisis, do not leave them alone. Remove all potentially dangerous items such as medication and weapons and either call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency department.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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