Suicide is when someone intentionally ends their own life. You may be concerned that someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, but are not sure how to help them. Or you may be worried that speaking to them directly about suicide will make them more likely to end their life. But research suggests the opposite is true.
Asking an individual about what they are going through can encourage them to open up and speak honestly about their problems. This can be the first step towards asking for help.
In this article, you can find information on the warning signs that suggest someone may be contemplating suicide and how to start a conversation with them.
You can also learn about what to do if they are in crisis, and how to look after yourself when you are supporting someone who is or may be suicidal.
How to spot warning signs
Changes in mood, personality, or behaviour can indicate that someone is considering suicide. For example, you may notice them:
- Becoming anxious, irritable or confrontational
- Having mood swings
- Acting recklessly
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from other people
- Struggling more with work or studies
- Saying negative things about themselves
There are signs that someone may be in more immediate danger of committing suicide, including:
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- Talking or writing about suicide and death
- Making specific plans to end their life
If you are ever worried that someone you know is contemplating suicide, start a conversation with them and check they know where to access professional help.
Find a good time and place to talk
It’s important that you pick an appropriate time and place to speak to them. Choose a location where you know the other person will feel comfortable and safe. Make sure it’s somewhere that’s fairly quiet where you won’t be interrupted and have time to talk.
Start the conversation
If someone you know is showing warning signs of being suicidal, try to talk to them. You may be reluctant to start a conversation because you aren’t sure how to help them deal with their problems. But sometimes it is helpful just to listen to them rather than come up with answers.
Ask both direct and open-ended questions
Asking both direct and open-ended questions can be helpful when talking to someone about their suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Direct questions mean you are not trying to tiptoe around the subject. An example of a direct question is ‘are you having suicidal thoughts?’.
At the same time, be compassionate and avoid phrasing your questions in a negative way. Don’t suggest that they should feel guilty or selfish for what they have been going through.
Open-ended questions encourage more elaborate response than a simple, one word answer like ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Examples of open-ended questions include:
- When - when did you realise?
- Where - where did this happen?
- What - what happened next?
- How - how does that make you feel?
Asking questions starting with ‘why’ can be a little more tricky, as they can sound accusatory. Substitute ‘why’ with ‘what’, for example, ‘what made you choose that?’.
Listen with care
Listen carefully to what the other person is saying and make them feel like they are being heard. Try to show empathy, compassion and understanding.
Make sure you do not pressure them to answer anything they don’t want to and always give them time to respond.
Ask questions leading on from their answers and repeat back the key points to show you are listening, using phrases like ‘so you think...’ or ‘so what you’re saying is...’.
Focus on how they feel; don’t try to find solutions to their suffering. Don’t tell them they should cheer up or that they should be grateful for what they have in life.
Instead, acknowledge the difficulty of their situation and let them know you are there for them. Avoid assuming that you know the cause of their problems and how to fix them.
It is a common myth that people who talk about suicide never commit the act. If someone tells you they are feeling suicidal, you should always take them seriously.
What to do if they do not want to talk
You should not pressure the person into talking if they don’t want to, but you can make sure they know where to seek help when they are ready.
For example, you can suggest they contact a doctor, a helpline, or a local mental health service.
You could direct them to the Befriender’s website, which provides global access to emotional support helplines.
The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) lists the contacts for crisis centres around the world.
If you live in the US, you can find support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
What to do in a crisis
If someone you know is in immediate danger of hurting themselves, try to remain calm and do not leave them alone. Make an emergency appointment with their doctor.
If you live in the UK, other emergency services that you could contact include:
- A mental health crisis team (if the person you are helping already has one)
- Accident and emergency (A&E)
- Emergency services (999)
- A community mental health team (CMHT)
A CMHT will only be able to provide support if the person has already been referred by a doctor.
CMHTs are usually only available during office hours or weekdays. If the person you are supporting is under a Care Programme Approach (CPA), they should have a crisis plan. You can ask them for this, which can be helpful if they go into crisis in the future.
You may want to check what emergency services are available in your area.
While waiting for professional support, you could ask the person more about their reasons for wanting to end their life and the reasons they may have for wanting to live. Encourage them to expand on their reasons for living. Be supportive and accept what they are telling you.
You should ask if they have tried to kill themselves before and if they have planned how they would kill themselves in the future.
If you live with them, remove any items they could use to harm themselves, (including sharp objects, belts, or cleaning products), especially if they have mentioned an object in a suicide plan.
Seek emergency medical attention if someone you know has seriously harmed themselves.
Look after yourself
It can be stressful and upsetting to know that someone you care about is feeling suicidal, and supporting them can be difficult.
But try to look after your own mental health. Give yourself a break when you need it, or talk things over with someone you trust.
You can always contact a helpline yourself if you’re more comfortable talking to someone you don’t know.
Accept that you cannot force the person to seek help immediately. They will need to set the pace for finding support themselves. You can do a lot by letting them know you are there for them.
If you are able to, try to share the supportive role with others to avoid putting too much pressure on yourself.
It’s not always easy to reach out to someone you think may be considering suicide, even though this can be the first step to them seeking professional help.
Try not to feel guilty or worried if you say something wrong or if the discussion does not go as well as you’d hoped. If you feel able, you can approach them in the future and try to express your concern again.
You could begin the conversation using phrases like ‘I’m sorry about the other day... I realise what I said was unhelpful... I’m still here to support you...’.
Simply by making the effort to listen to them and make sure they know where to seek help, you can make a difference.
If someone you know has seriously injured themselves, do not leave them alone and contact emergency medical services.
If someone you care about is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you could recommend they visit the Befrienders website to access an emotional support helpline.