Are You Afraid that Asking about Suicidal Thoughts will Anger the Person?

Many people are afraid to ask a person if he or she is considering suicide, because they fear the person will get angry. The thinking goes, if I ask about suicide, they will assume I think they are crazy or unstable.

I have asked dozens and dozens – perhaps even hundreds – of people whether they are considering suicide. Of these, only one has ever responded in anger. And that might have occurred because I did not ask that person in a mental health setting. (She was a student in my university office. As she sobbed heavily, she described feelings of hopelessness and despair, so I asked.)

Instead of anger, the vast majority of people I have asked about suicidal thoughts have responded in one of two ways:

“Oh no, I would never think of that,” is one way. For these people, I next ask what stops them from considering suicide an option for them. It is important to root out a person’s reasons for living and reinforce those.

The other response is one of relief. “Yes. Yes I do,” the person might say, closing their eyes as they say it. The relief comes from being asked the question – now they don’t have the burden of disclosing this very difficult piece of information or of carrying around this burdensome truth alone– by someone who cares and can understand.

If the Person Does Get Angry…

But what if the person you ask about suicidal thoughts does get angry? What then?

We have a saying in the suicide prevention field: Better a mad friend than a dead friend. The same goes with clients. In asking about suicidal thoughts, you take the risk that the person gets angry. In not asking, you take the risk that the person is alone with their suicidal thoughts, isolated from help, and could die.

Which is the risk that you would rather take?

Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, is the author of “Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals,” a psychotherapist and consultant, and an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All rights Reserved. Written for Speaking of Suicide. Photo purchased from

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