10 Things to Say to a Suicidal Person

Many people desperately want to know what to say – and what not to say – to someone who is thinking of suicide. The article 10 Things Not to Say to a Suicidal Person is SpeakingOfSuicide.com’s most popular post. Almost a half-million people have viewed it in the last 2½ years. Several hundred have left comments.

Sometimes people complain to me that the post describes what not to say, but it doesn’t say enough about what to say. They’re right. So in this post, I provide 10 things to say to a suicidal person.

First, Some Caveats

Before starting, I want to make some things clear: I came up with this list based on my conversations with suicidal individuals in my work as a clinical social worker, my readings of both clinical literature and accounts by individuals who experienced suicidal crises, and my own past experiences with suicidal thoughts. Nobody has actually researched systematically the most effective things for friends or family to say to a suicidal person, so opinion and experience are the best we’ve got for now. Results will vary according to different people’s needs and personalities.

I also want to make clear that this list of things to say is not intended to be a script. Instead, I illustrate ways that you can help a suicidal person continue to open up, rather than shutting the person down with a comment that minimizes, invalidates, or even denigrates the person’s experience.

And I want to add that what to say often isn’t nearly as important as how to listen. As I explain in my post “How Would You Listen to a Person on the Roof?”, someone who is thinking of suicide needs to feel understood. Let the person tell their story. Refrain from immediately trying to fix the situation or make the person feel better. These efforts, however well intended, can halt the conversation.

So, with all that said, here are 10 things you can say to someone who tells you that they are considering suicide.

1. “I’m so glad you told me that you’re thinking of suicide.”

When someone discloses suicidal thoughts, some parents, partners, friends and others react with anger (“Don’t be stupid!”), pain (“How could you think of hurting me like that?”), or disbelief (“You can’t be serious.”) Some “freak out.” A suicidal person might then feel a need to comfort the hurt person, provide a defense to the angry person, or retreat internally from the disbelieving person. The person might regret ever having shared in the first place that they were thinking of suicide.

By saying “I’m glad you told me” – or something similar – you convey that you welcome and encourage disclosure of suicidal thoughts, and that you can handle it.

2. “I’m sad you’re hurting like this.”

This simple expression of empathy can go a long way toward validating the person’s pain and soothing a sense of aloneness. There’s no “Oh it’s not so bad,” no “You don’t really mean that,” no “But you have so much going for you,” no other statement denying or minimizing the person’s pain.

3. “What’s going on that makes you want to die?”

This invitation to the suicidal person to tell their story can provide validation, engender a sense of connection, and show that you really want to understand. Ask the person to tell their story. And then, listen. Really listen. To deepen your understanding, follow up with more invitations to share, like “Tell me more.” Show empathy and understanding, too: “That sounds awful” or “I can see why that’s painful.”

4. “When do you think you’ll act on your suicidal thoughts?”

Even if you’re not a mental health professional, you still can ask some basic questions to help understand the person’s risk for suicide. Asking about timing will make the difference between whether you need to call someone immediately for help (for example, if the person says, “I have a gun in my backpack and I’m going to shoot myself during lunch”) or whether you can continue to have leisurely conversation with the person.

5. “What ways do you think of killing yourself?”

This is another risk-assessment question. The answer can help reveal the gravity of the situation. A person who has put a lot of time and thought into suicide methods might be in more danger than someone with a vague wish to be dead, for example.

Understanding the suicide methods that the person has considered also will help you in your efforts to keep the person safe. For example, if you’re a parent and your teenage child discloses suicidal thoughts, knowing that your teenager is considering overdosing on a painkiller alerts you to the need to lock up or throw away all potentially dangerous medications. (See this information from the Center for Youth for ways to make your home safer.)

6. “Do you have access to a gun?”

Even if you think the person doesn’t own a gun or can’t get a hold of one, this information is always important. If the answer is yes, ask the person to consider giving the gun (or a key piece of the gun) to someone, locking the gun up and giving someone the key, or doing something else to make the home gun-free until the danger of suicide goes down. For more information about firearm safety related to suicide risk, also see this gun safety fact sheet.

7. “Help is available.”

By telling the person about help that’s available, you can help them to not feel so alone, helpless, or hopeless. If you are in the U.S., you can give them the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.8255) or the Crisis Text Line (741-741). You also  can show them the SpeakingOfSuicide.com Resources page, which lists other resources in the U.S. and worldwide to receive help by phone, email, text, or online chat. If the person who reveals suicidal thoughts to you is your child, take them to a mental health professional or an emergency room for an evaluation.

8. “What can I do to help?”

Definitely tell the person about resources for help, but also make clear that you are available, too, if you’re able to do so. That said, there’s only so much you can do, so if you are feeling solely responsible for keeping the person alive, it’s best to involve others, too.

9. “I care about you, and I would be so sad if you died by suicide.”

Be careful here. In my earlier post, one of the 10 things not to say is, “Don’t you know I would be devastated if you killed yourself? How could you think of hurting me like that?” As I note in that post, “Your loved one already feels awful. Heaping guilt on top of that is not going to help them feel soothed, understood, or welcome to tell you more.”

At the same time, a simple statement of how much you care about or love the person can help nurture a sense of connection, if your statement isn’t an attempt to stop the person from talking further about suicide.

10. “I hope you’ll keep talking to me about your thoughts of suicide.”

Just as you want the person to feel welcome for having shared their suicidal thoughts to you, it’s good to make clear that you would welcome further disclosures, as well. Often, someone who has suicidal thoughts senses from others an expectation to “get over it already.” By inviting the person to come to you again about their suicidal thoughts, you can help prevent isolation and secrecy.

What Are Your Ideas about What to Say to a Suicidal Person?

There are many other helpful responses besides those listed here. If you have thoughts of suicide, what do you wish someone would say to you if you told them? If you have ever helped a suicidal friend or family member, what responses from you seemed to foster sharing, connection, and safety? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

*

Copyright 2017 by Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW. Written for SpeakingOfSuicide.com. All Rights Reserved. Photos purchased from Fotolia.com.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Thank you for your interest in submitting a comment. Please take a look at the site’s comments policy.

20 Reader Comments

Trackback URL Comments RSS Feed

  1. Sadie_B says:

    The pain doesn’t last forever. This part of your life is small compared to all the things you can do. Don’t end it all for this. It will get better.

  2. Kylie H. says:

    My friend has already attempted, her parents know but I don’t trust her. I remember the phone call when she told me and she was telling me how broken and sad she was, that she just wanted to die. I have my own problems and that’s why she said she wouldn’t tell me. Towards the end of the phone call she got mad because she thought that I was going to tell the school counselor. She asked me if I would and I told her that I wouldn’t give her a yes or no because I don’t trust that she won’t do it again. Her parents have known for a long time and they haven’t done anything, I’m worried about her and she doesn’t want to talk to me, I don’t know what to do.

  3. Kylie says:

    My friend has already attempted, her parents know but I don’t trust her. I remember the phone call when she told me and she was telling me how broken and sad she was, that she just wanted to die. I have my own problems and that’s why she said she wouldn’t tell me. Towards the end of the phone call she got mad because she thought that I was going to tell the school counselor. She asked me if I would and I told her that I wouldn’t give her a yes or no because I don’t trust that she won’t do it again. Her parents have known for a long time and they haven’t done anything, I’m worried about her and she doesn’t want to talk to me, I don’t know what to do.

  4. Cheyenne says:

    I am in 6th grade, and I moved from NY to NM last year. Along with leaving my state I also left one of my best ever friends behind. Just today she first texted me saying that i couldn’t tell ANYBODY AT ALL about what she was gonna say, and I agreed. After she said she was considering suicide. I am on a break, and visited NY, and we set up a meeting in two days. We are going to be supervised by our mothers, and I want to talk to her, but don’t know if I can, or what to say. Any suggestions?

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Cheyenne,

      I’m sorry you’re in this situation, where you’re worrying about your close friend and not knowing how to help her, especially with her expectation of secrecy. I hope you will read my post, “Better Mad Than Dead”: Keeping a Friend’s Suicidal Thoughts Secret. I address there the very situation in which you find yourself now.

      That said, my quick advice here is to listen to her (even though you’ll be supervised by your mothers, it’s likely that you’ll have times where they’re talking with each other and you and your friend can talk without intrusion), offer empathy and support, and then, if she is indeed having thoughts of killing herself, tell your mom or hers. Yes, she might be mad, but as the title above states, better mad than dead.

      I hope it works out well for all of you!

    • Anonymous says:

      If you truly care about your friend you need to tell an adult you trust about what your friend has said to you. Your friend could hurt her or him self make sure to take your friend seriously i wish you both the best.

  5. Calvin Moore says:

    I have been brought up in the church and have given so much of myself in the service of Him. I have been far from perfect, but felt I have been abandoned. I wish I could not believe in anything or anyone who would care whether I lived or died. I have seen evidence of the existence of God, however, I do not see Him as benevolent and kind. The human perceptions of God may not be anywhere near what He is really. I find myself praying for myself and others I care about and find myself stopping mind prayer. I stop because I know He does not care. I have been abandoned and because what I might ask is nothing compared to what pain others might be suffering. What I am dealing with is nothing and it is up to me to figure this out myself. I am angry, I am sad, and wish I was an atheist. I would be far better served if I were.

  6. Alex says:

    I always find your articles informative and helpful.
    Working in EMS I find myself often talking with people who are depressed and suicidal. I’ve told some of my colleagues about your site. Keep up the good work.

  7. Phelix says:

    Great advice! Though, I’d disagree with taking your child to an ER or therapist unless there’s an imminent threat… or you’ve asked your child and they want to go.

    Taking them to someone else can scare them, give the impression that you want to hand over responsibility to someone else, and make them less likely to share these thoughts in the future.

  8. Really good questions. I’m so glad you brought this up. Very helpful to clients and therapists!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you, Loren! I appreciate your feedback and hope the post is indeed helpful.

  9. AJ QUINN says:

    i want to help but.. what is help really we can’t help whats gone. i’m scared i won’t last either and my friend needs me but i can’t help for i can’t win or fight i’m so tired

  10. John says:

    So all comments have to be PC, and not promote a religion, so basically 80% of why people are having difficulty in this world, will be categorized as political fodder, are you even serious about this? I’m not here to tell people how to be something, other than be themselves.

  11. Justice says:

    I have a friend who has a “wall” and she won’t tell me anything anymore. The last thing she told me about was that she was thinking about cutting. And then her and another friend of mine got in a huge fight. It’s been 7 months and I’m still worried about her. I have no idea what to do. How do I get her to start talking to me again?

    • Phelix says:

      I remember that wall. I had forgotten about it. I kept seeing it in my teens or twenties. It could still be there, but I don’t see it anymore.

  12. Rob says:

    First, you would have to ask what kind of suicidal person are you talking to? Is it someone who wants to leave this life because of things having to do with social status, problems with school, not getting along with parents, or professional failure?
    Or is the suicidal person someone who is suffering a chronic disease, pain, fatigue, loss of control over bodily functions, etc.? The former are things that can be addressed via “therapy.” The latter are often things that are chronic by nature and show little sign of remedy. Two very different animals.

    I swear I do feel a twinge of alienation when I read suicide prevention sites and articles. All the suggestions, advice, concern etc., are almost always aimed at the former! The rest of us are like oddballs, freaks, often older. The admonitions to hold on as well as assertions such as “it get’s better” or “suicide is a temporary solution to a permanent problem” add to the farce-like atmosphere, where we feel like all this good intentioned stuff just isn’t for us.

  13. Karen Smith says:

    Would this be appropriate?
    “How can I help you to feel better?”

  14. A few others that work: “I love you.” “You’re not alone in this.” “I’ll always be there for you.” “You are loved.” “How can I help.”

    • Phelix says:

      Those are really nice sentiments. I think most people would find them helpful. Though, personally, when I hear words like “always” or “never,” my skepticism kicks in.

      Two of the nicest things friends have said to me when I was inconsolable were 1) “I wish you’d be nicer to my friend Phelix,” meaning she loved me and wanted me to be nicer to myself; 2) “Hon, we’re getting you a bicycle.”

      Reframes maybe effective only for me, but I think they worked for me because each placed me slightly outside the frame and sounded somewhat practical. Also, one was a wish, and the other a commitment. Neither was a task unequivocally put on my plate, and both were thoughtful.

Top