Are you concerned someone you know is having thoughts of suicide? This can be a very distressing situation, as many people don’t know how to help.
It's common for people to think that talking about suicide increases the risk. This is not the case. This myth can stop important discussions from taking place.
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 discussion can prevent suicidal action in the future.
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.
Notice how the person is looking and feeling. What are 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 that we need to connect with.
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 can have thoughts of suicide may 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.
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. Inviting them to talk about their thoughts of suicide is a way to demonstrate your concern and show that you're taking their experiences seriously.
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.
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 and 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.