“Better Mad than Dead”: Keeping a Friend’s Suicidal Thoughts Secret

Teenagers who think of suicide often  tell only their friends, and they make the friends promise to keep their suicidal thoughts secret. This puts the friends of a suicidal teen in a bind. Should they break their promise and tell an adult?

Telling an adult poses problems. Doing so might end the friendship. The suicidal teen may end up getting in trouble with their parents (sadly). They end up in a psychiatric hospital (unlikely). And the friend might be so angry that he or she never speaks again to the person who informed an adult.

These are legitimate worries. But if you are a teen and have a friend who is thinking of suicide, I hope you will consider this:

Would you rather that your friend be mad at you and alive, or in danger of dying by suicide? Worse, what if your friend dies and you did not do everything you could to help?

Living with Regret

In the suicide prevention field, we have a saying:

Better a mad friend than a dead friend.

This is blunt, but true. Years ago, I talked with a 17-year-old whose best friend had died by suicide. Her friend had confided in her that she was thinking of dying by suicide, and swore her to secrecy. The young woman I spoke with kept her promise.

When she learned of her friend’s suicide, she felt awful in more ways than one. Not only did she miss her friend greatly, grieve her loss. She also blamed herself for not getting help for her friend. It is a terrible weight to bear, making the “what if’s” all the more painful.

Telling an Adult

For these reasons, if you are a teen or even younger and a friend asks you to keep their suicidal thoughts secret, I hope that you will decide to tell an adult. You might tell your parents, your friend’s parents, a teacher, a coach, a minister, or some other adult about your friend’s state of mind.

You may have many reasons for not wanting to tell an adult, or for being afraid to. In the post 10 Reasons Teens Avoid Telling Parents about Suicidal Thoughts, I list some of the reasons teens find it hard to talk about suicide. Maybe you can even show that list to your parents or whatever adult you tell, in the hopes that it will help them to react more sensitively.

Things to Think About

Perhaps your friend will be mad at you. If so, perhaps they will forgive you when they feel better. And perhaps they will not be mad at all. Some teens are relieved when an adult enters the picture and gets them the help they need.

You may think it is safe to keep your friend’s secret, because you find it unlikely that your friend will really die by suicide. Chances are you are correct. In the year 2000, for example, an estimated 3 million people 12-17 years old seriously considered suicide or made an attempt that did not kill them, according to the NHSDA Report. Of those 3 million, just over 1,000 died by suicide that year.  

So maybe your friend will not act on their suicidal thoughts, in which case you may think afterward that there was no need to let an adult know. But they also might be in the small group of teens who do die by suicide.

But do you really want to take the chance that you are wrong?

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 www.speakingofsuicide.comPhotos purchased from Fotolia.com

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  1. Lost says:

    A classmate who I knew pretty well started talking to me about his suicidal thoughts and depression. He told me that he had gone to a psychiatric hospital and that he self harms. I did my best to help and I promised that I would not tell anyone. We became pretty good friends and I eventually opened up to him about my own experience with anxiety. He began to get a lot better and stopped harming himself. We started to develop feelings for each other and we have been dating for about a month. I was hesitant to date him because I wasn’t sure if he wasn’t in the right state of mind to have a relationship but he seemed to have gotten a lot better. Recently has has been acting like the way he was when we first met. He says its becoming harder and harder not to harm himself. I am really worried about him. He still goes to therapy every week but he has told me in the past that he has lied to his therapist about how he is doing. I don’t know if I need to tell someone about this or not. I am totally lost

  2. anomynous says:

    my friend about 3 days ago said she wanted to kill herself, and i didn’t think much of it until i panicked and did an anonymous report to my councilor, later she texted me “thanks for making life 100% worse. i was actually having a good day for once and now i’m in the counseling office with my mom and in deep shit”

    • squidney says:

      today my friend called me and was bleeding from her wrist. I called police on her. She yelled at me and called me fucked up, telling me it was a joke and she wasn’t actually going to cut deep. Calling me stupid and now she’s in deep shit cauz of me. I feel insanely guilty, but I don’t regret it. Truly, rather mad than dead.

  3. prisoner of war says:

    my “friend” told the school. i was thrown into a “hospital” where i had almost no rights and i was basically tortured. i wasn’t actually suicidal before, i was just expressing my negative feelings in the wrong way. i was suicidal while in the “hospital” though. i am not now that i am out, but i get still nightmares about that place even though its been over a month.

  4. Penny says:

    How awful do you think it was to have the parent of a teen turn on their friend and say things like,
    “And you, you knew didn’t you? She told you everything. All you two ever did was text each other with secrets and ways of sneaking out to drink, do drugs and disobeying everyone at school, at home– everywhere! You knew and you didn’t do anything., because that wouldn’t be cool. Well, I hope you’re happy now – you worthless piece of tattooed shit. All those nights you had her sneak out with you so you paint walls and trains and trucks – you knew. You probably thought it was cool to be suicidal-didn’t you? So romantic. So heavy. Well, how cool and romantic is it now? You knew and you didn’t do anything to stop her. Now she’s spread all over the railroad tracks. Bits and pieces of her body all over the place. You didn’t get to see that, did you? You didn’t have to go and try to identify her remains. Well fuck you. You were never her friend. You kept her secrets all to yourself. Well now you carry those secrets with you for the rest of your miserable life. I hope you rot in hell for not telling me – her MOTHER – that my baby was so sad she wanted to die. Who the hell do you think you are to keep something like that from me? Some day you’ll have a child and I hope they kill themselves so you’ll know how I feel. I hate you. I wish you had jumped in front of that train.

    That’s not too far off from the tirade that occurred before the father of the teen who died by suicide intervened at the funeral home when the girl’s BFF showed up.

    Truly – better to tell someone than live with that kind of guilt- unfounded as it may be.

  5. Hope says:

    I’ve struggled with depression for 5 yrs and only recently was an adult informed, and as hard as it was to admit it having their help has made a huge difference and I’m getting help. I just wish parents wouldn’t freak out as much. My family is over protective as it is, so them finding out would send them into lock down and I literally wouldn’t be allowed outside of their sight. Tell an Adult you trust. Nothing is worse than losing a friend or family member. I know way too well the effects and it’s super scary honestly.

  6. Anom. says:

    Idk what to do I want to tell my best friend parents about him being suicidal and I also don’t because I feel that he won’t forgive me. I have gone through the same thing with my sister and my brother. I still don’t know how to deal with this. I think he needs help with this but who should I call about this?
    Please help me.

    • Marie says:

      I recently had to go through the same thing and if I’m being honest, going to see a counsellor was one of the best decisions me and my friends have made. It’s better to live with hate rather than guilt, and my friend honestly wasn’t that mad. If you don’t have a counsellor to go to call a suicide hotline or at least tell their parents. I know this can be scary, but you can do it, the reward is much better than the cost.

  7. Pull The Trigger says:

    Um… no. If I told someone, and they told an adult, I would be pushed to die earlier. Eventually word will get round, and you’ll be judged, bullied, and outlawed. People see suicide as a selfish thing. Telling someone will only end in hurt, pain and forgottedness. I have to tell the truth. Sure, it may be different for others, but it’ll never work out.

  8. I'm nobody, and so are you says:

    The last thing I have to figure out before I leave the world is who will take my 2 dogs and my bird.I have no family, children or significant other or even friends! I just moved here and lost hundreds of friends back home. Never say that suicide doesn’t solve problems. OF COURSE IT DOES! It solves every single one. Also, since I’ve been planning suicide for about 2 years now, I have created some of the greatest techniques that I haven’t seen anywhere else. They are truly brilliant methods of getting out of this hell hole shark tank painlessly. Last of all, make sure your tombstone says, “DON’T HAVE KIDS.” Every idiot couple who brings in a baby just wants the fun of a young person for 18 years. After that, the poor kids are on their own. Once the parents die, the kids are left with tragedies left and right, facing death, themselves, and sick and terrified and living in horror. If you love children, DON’T HAVE THEM! It’s selfish and cruel and they die in misery after you’re dead and you can’t even comfort them. How selfish are you to do that to a human being??? Later, taters.

    • The Girly Swede says:

      I want you here… Please don’t go. Can we talk?

    • Denise E Reaser says:

      I hope you are still alive, because there is more to life that is good and sometimes even great experiences are awaiting you.
      Planning your death leads to more despair…..unhappiness, much more that is negative. Would’nt you like to overcome and conquer your problems in a way that will make you proud to be who you are, and tell others you found a way to live through this hell and found your true reason of happiness that makes your life worth living…??
      It can be done!!
      Love and great happy days ahead!

  9. I don't see the point says:

    I cry everyday with my friend because we both feel strongly about it but one of my other friends is the only one holding us back. He makes us feel like we matter even though our families don’t make us feel that way.

    • No says:

      You may not know it now, but so many people care. Look, only reading your comment, I care!
      And if you trust them, tell your parents. If not, is there anybody else you trust? Relative or teacher, perhaps? The important thing is, you have to share your feelings. I don’t know where you live but look for a number you can call, just to talk.
      If it gets too bad, please please please seek medical treatment.
      Also: remember there is a suicide emergency number.

  10. I don't see the point says:

    I don’t know if I should tell anyone because my parents might get mad. I want someone to hear me for once.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m not going to kill my self I’m just going to try my best to live with my dad

  12. K says:

    From his life experiences, my partner’d told me I was the only person he could trust.
    We lived out-of-state, his family never bothered in fifteen years, it was always Only Us, even co-works/aquaintances never bothered.
    His mom and an old friend called 911 from out-of-state twice: when the police showed-up, he had enough mental capacity to play-it-off as just a “bad day” type scene. And, every time the police did show, he’d get extremely pissed.
    In Florida, the famous Baker Act only allows cops/doctors/counselors/etc. to have a person put in the hospital for 2-3 days evaluation, only-if the person shows Intent With Means.
    And, even at the hospital, anyone can play-it-off and get released.
    Because We were alone, and I was the only one Who knew all the deep shit, If I could’ve had him looked-at, he would have played-it-off, gotten released; Then, the last person he trusted………me…….turning him in.
    He would have taken off somewhere, unknown: he had survival skills, firearms proficiency, and recent episodes of Hypervigilance.
    Sitting outside, the neighbor started his lawnmower….same as usual, but my partner jumped-up literally ready to go over the fence and kill the guy!
    Took me a while to calm him down.
    Now…….What If I weren’t around…….I can promise you, with his skills, someone(s) would be dead.
    Shooter with mental issues goes on rampage…….then all we hear/think is “another nutjob killed someone”, shot dead by police. But noone cares about the WHAT That brought them to this point!!
    ***Tell everyone WHAT: I did, my partner was a really good person who gave/cared without expecting anything. He worked his ass-off for years, we both did, trying to buy the company, getting used by a greedy worthless piece-of-shit boss. Our customers loved how much he helped them, but when he stopped leaving the house, They got all pissy because he wasn’t kissing their asses anymore!
    He sent his mom money anytime she needed, yet the bitch refused to ever come-down, MORE actually refused to The Week Before when I called, begging her and his brother for help……then yelled at me, after, That there should have been an Intervention!
    She stuck me with all the dirty work after, even the police left me there alone at 3:30a.m. without telling me I had to clean-up!
    And Worse: because we never had a Civil Union, noone giving-a-shit about our Ten Years or the Secret Hell he wouldn’t/I couldn’t say anything about,
    The police treated me no better than a roommate, admitted not doing resuscitation, the blood stains on the mattress I had to clean were bigger than his body…even after soaking through a comforter/blankets: the M.F.s had let him bleed.
    But Florida Law doesn’t allow me to seek Wrongful Death: there has to be a Spouse or Minor Child!
    So yeah, his heartless mom got him, I got all the shit: she knew I lost everything, but I still had to fight her greedy attempts to take “only his most valuable stuff”….this was our Home, noone gave a shit when we were sweating in the Florida sun to get all of our stuff, but I’m just suppossed to hand it over?
    F_CK THAT!
    Long-Short: Yet, again, noone else knowing how deep the shit was, and only heard of an Insane Gunman on the news, wouldn’t care past Him getting shot by the police, end-of-story.
    ~So easy writing/thinking pretty conclusions/treatments/stories when your hands are only dusty from the classroom……try doing So with your hands covered in the Blood Of The Innocent……..yes, having a Mental Condition is out-of-your-control, you/we (Member now since 2/16/15) are innocent, it’s the Conditions and Those who sacrifice proper treatment for time, money, procedure and fame Who are guilty.

    • I don't see the point says:

      I would be dead right now if my friend didn’t stop me before. My mind hasn’t changed from that day.

  13. Aquamarine Jay says:

    My friend is suicidal and has depression. She’s attempted suicide numerous times. I’ve only known her for like a year and a half. Maybe more. In that time she’s attempted suicide two or three times and she’s told me beforehand. I didn’t tell anyone about this. And now she’s told me she’s going to attempt suicide again. I have a bad feeling this attempt might work. Should I really tell someone?

    • Grieving Dad says:

      Yes, Yes, Yes tell the parents, tell their therapist, give them a suicide hotline, anything to stop them from attempting suicide. They maybe upset with you, but trust me coming from someone whose only biological child committed suicide it’s the right thing to do. My 20 year old son shot himself in the head with my own gun 18 months ago in his bedroom while my wife and I were at work. We found him, and it has utterly destroyed our lives. It was horrific, gruesome, not like the moves at all, and permanent. My son, my baby is dead, no going back, just gone.

      We found out a few months later from his ex girlfriend she knew he was suicidal. She knew he was threatening to end his life for years with the very gun he used, when he thought about doing it… She said nothing , she kept his secret, and now he is dead doing exactly what he told her he wanted to do. She also told us she dumped him to “toughen him up from his anxiety issues”. The complete, and utter devastation my son’s suicide has caused myself, my wife, his brother, friends… is unimaginable. I forgive her, but will go to my grave very angry with her for not telling us, for keeping his secret.

      I will never know if my son could have been saved. If we had known he was having suicidal thoughts, we would have removed the gun, and told his therapist who also was unaware he was suicidal… We would have at least had a chance to get him the help he needed, and saved him…My wife, and I were completely blindsided by his suicide. I would give anything to have gotten that warning he was suicidal, but I didn’t, and he is now gone forever.

      Your friend if they complete the act will leave a trail of destruction like my son did. Please do everything to talk them out of it, get them professional help… Remember that is someone’s child you are trying to save.

      • Aquamarine Jay says:

        The said friend is adopted so her relationship with her parents isn’t the best but yes, I will keep your advice in mind. I’ll try to do as you said because losing someone close to you…..well that’s something I can understand. Anyway thanks.

        And I’d tell you I’m sorry for your loss, but I personally don’t believe sorry cuts it. So all I can do is hope you can live your life as well as you can, I imagine you must be feeling a bit guilty. And hopefully things won’t go any worse.

    • I don't see the point says:

      Sometimes it help. with me I would be mad if my friends told my parents, not like they would care anyway.

  14. Ally says:

    This article was reassuring to me to say the least.

    Just lately a friend of mine was planning suicide and I have had to call the Suicide Prevention Hotline because I panicked and I was extremely terrified. I had already lost another friend to suicide almost a year ago and that was my driving force to call them, plus more encouragements from another friend. They told me to call the police in their area, and so I did. The family was notified, and they came to check on my friend to ask them questions.

    Now they’re mad at me for having to call the police but what else was I going to do? Call the relatives? I had no other way to contact anyone else related to my friend nearby, and that’s what the hotline told me. They got angry, and told me I shouldn’t deal with them anymore.

    Nothing prepared me for the hurt of losing a friend just by trying to save their life. Honestly though? I’m just relieved. That they’re safe. I don’t want to live through a sad guilt-ridden life just like I did those months back, and this friend was very dear to me..

    I hope one day I can talk to them again. There’s no guarantee, but I want to hope at least a little. But thank you so much for this article. It helped me feel assured. Thank you.

  15. Nikolle says:

    This is a very educational article. I do not know that I agree totally with it though. Do you think this applies to adults as well? If a person who is considering suicide as an adult and speaks of it to another one as a confidence what do you think? I disagree with all these sites that say you need to always call 911 when someone mentions suicide. Sometimes you simply need to listen and then keep whatever they say in confidence between you and them. If you do end up telling someone, the person may well end up in a pysch hospital (not sure why this article says that is unlikely by the way as that IS what would end up happening 9 out of 10 times……) and win the Psych ward very few ever get correct treatment that helps them the first or even 2nd, 3rd, or 4th chances. You then have a case where the person gets out feeling no better and you end up losing that person anyway. Because they turned to you to listen and support them and you decided to take charge of a matter that no one asked you to to start with!!!!!! This always bothers me I must confess. I would rather have a friend I could admit my strong suicidal feelings to than to have them “turn me in” and stay in a hospital for a few days, them push pills on me, and walk out planning to end my life. Now, with no one to turn to as the person is no longer trustworthy at that point. Now, which do you all prefer in this scenario?? You assume what the treatment is going to work all the time? We know they fail more than they succeed and then you have lost that person. Instead, I suggest letting them talk to you and keeping whatever they say secret. That way, when they feel this way again they know they can come to you and tell you and have relief from those feelings. What do you think?? Or am I missing something here? Well, sorry this is long. Good day to you!!!!!!

  16. Lizabeth says:

    I had a friend who was suicidal and he didnt want to tell an adult. I took the risk and told a counselor. They were glad I did. I told them, “Rather deal with hate than regret.”

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      That is an excellent point! I often wonder, what would someone rather regret: acting out of love and concern when the person ends up being safe, or doing nothing when the person ends up dying?

      I know what the answer is for me! And I think many people who are on the receiving end of a caring act ultimately come to appreciate that someone cared enough to try to get them help.

  17. depression says:

    Very Interesting! Thanks

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