The common myth that talking about suicide increases the risk of suicide can stop this important discussion happening. Rather than putting the idea into someone’s head, having an open and supportive conversation gives them the opportunity to talk about their distress. They will feel relieved and cared for, and this can increase help-seeking and prevent suicidal action.
How to have the conversation
When it comes to starting a conversation with someone at risk of suicide, we can often feel at a loss about what to do. The following steps, based on LivingWorks Australia’s safeTALK training, provide a useful guide for starting a conversation about suicide.
Step 1: Identify your concerns
Notice how the person is looking and feeling. What they are saying and doing? What significant events are occurring in their lives? What is it that indicates the person may be thinking of suicide? Consider these signs as invitations to check in with the person – they are often indirect expressions of distress, which we need to connect with.
Step 2: Ask directly about suicide
A good way to do this is to state the invitations you have noticed and express your concern. Telling the person that others in similar situations sometimes have thoughts of suicide can help them open up. Asking directly is crucial, as it gives the person permission to speak about what they are going through. Here is an example of how to ask:
‘I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed really low recently and haven’t been doing things you usually enjoy. Sometimes when people are feeling this way they have thoughts of suicide. Are you having thoughts of suicide?'
Remember, if the person is having thoughts of suicide, you want them to say ‘yes’ – this means that you can work together to do something about it.
Step 3: Listen to their response
Showing that you are open and willing to listen helps the person not to feel ashamed. Remaining calm and non-judgmental allows them to express their distress, perhaps for the first time, and still feel accepted (many people fear they won’t be). It can be tempting to offer solutions at this point, but don’t jump to problem-solving – it is more valuable to validate the person’s feelings. Emphasising that you believe it is important to talk about their thoughts of suicide demonstrates that you care and are taking their experiences seriously.
Step 4: If you’re worried seek help
Talk to the person about how you can work together. Be honest in telling them that you are concerned and need extra help to support them. Let them know that you can’t keep this a secret – their safety is too important. The supports you link them to might be crisis helplines, mental health professionals, or emergency services.
If the person will not agree to stay safe, reach out to support services immediately. It is important to do this step together, rather than asking the person to agree to do it later. Stay with them and ask how you can help. For example, you could offer to start the conversation with a helpline so that the person doesn’t have to repeat their story from scratch. Make it clear to the support service that the person needs assistance because they are having thoughts of suicide.
Key things to remember
- Thoughts of suicide are common and can occur in anyone. The person you know is still the same person they were before, they are just feeling extremely distressed right now. Indeed, they may feel just as scared by their thoughts of suicide as you are for them. You can talk about this.
- Ambivalence is key. If the person is talking to you about their thoughts of suicide, then they are unsure whether they want to live or die. Part of them feels overwhelmed by distress and considers suicide an option to relieve their intense emotional pain. Another part of them wants, or hopes, to fix whatever is causing the distress. This is why suicide is often described as ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem’. It’s not the time to problem-solve when someone is in crisis, yet you can remind them that they need to survive in order to have the opportunity to lead the life they want.
- You don’t need to know how to fix the problems that have led the person to consider suicide. You just need to be there to acknowledge what they are going through, show that you care and assist them to get help. Consider this ‘mental health first aid’. Your role is to help them survive and access further treatment.
- Look after yourself. Supporting someone who is feeling suicidal can be incredibly stressful. Make sure that you take time out for self-care and doing things you enjoy, and that you have people to talk to about how you are going. Your supports may be family or friends, or a mental health professional – the crisis helplines above are for carers too.
Creating a safe community
We can all contribute to suicide prevention. While specialist help is necessary and effective, family members and friends are often best placed to provide immediate support.
Anyone can learn to help people who are having thoughts of suicide. If you want to know more and feel confident in these situations, LivingWorks Australia provides suicide intervention training.
By starting conversations about suicide and developing skills to respond we are preparing ourselves to protect someone when they are at their most vulnerable.
Laura Abbey is a SANE Help Centre Advisor and is currently studying a Masters in Clinical Psychology.
More to read . . .
- How to help when someone is suicidal
- Preventing suicide a factsheet from Lifeline
- Suicide intervention training program by LivingWorks Australia
- Concerned about someone? a factsheet by the Suicide Call Back Service