If you suspect that someone close to you is suicidal, not knowing what to do or say can be extremely distressing. It can be a scary topic to address, and it’s completely normal to feel helpless; you might feel stuck and unsure of how to help. There are a few ways that we can support someone who is struggling. Although suicidal ideation should always be addressed with a professional, you still play a large role in helping someone feel heard. Keeping these four tips in mind will help you navigate this topic and prevent risk.
Ask open-ended questions (If they’re not sharing, they’re storing)
Suicidal thoughts are heavy to carry. They are often harboured with feelings of so much shame, failure, or hopelessness. When we create a space that invites someone to be heard, the weight becomes less for them to carry, and a discussion becomes more productive. When supporting someone through their pain, the only way to explore and foster healing is for the discussion to be less isolated and more expansive. Open-ended questions invite the opportunity for an individual to expand on their feelings.
Rather than asking questions with a simple “yes” or “no” response, if we suspect that someone is considering suicide, we can ask questions such as “How have you been feeling lately?”, “What has been the most challenging for you?”, “When did you start feeling this way?” or “What happened next?”. Remember that asking these questions requires you to give someone your time and full attention. Be patient and present with them, allowing them to reflect on some of the challenging emotions they have been experiencing.
You don’t have to avoid the word “suicide”
When we choose our words too carefully, sometimes we will unintentionally stigmatize. If someone is suicidal, even if the topic is uncomfortable, we want to express that we are open to talking about it rather than associating the topic with shame.
MYTH: Talking about suicide to someone at-risk will encourage suicide attempts. Research on suicide prevention has shown that bringing up suicide to someone who is considering it will not put them at any more risk. In fact, it can actually help someone regulate. Don’t be afraid to be direct and inquire about it when necessary. If you are recognizing warning signs, after using some open-ended questioning, you can ask someone “are you having any suicidal thoughts or plans?”, or “Have you felt like wanting to end your life?”.
Take them seriously
Many individuals will carry pain in silence, with the fear that their distress won’t be taken seriously. Brushing off someone’s suicidal thoughts will undermine and invalidate their distress, likely making them reluctant to seek help. It is best (and safest) that you acknowledge the pain they are going through and validate their struggles – especially with someone at high risk. If someone opens up to you about their pain, respond to them with comfort rather than feedback or trying to “fix” the situation. Someone in crisis might not always respond best to solution-oriented language. Genuine validation and compassion is more effective in de-escalating. Rather than offering them suggestions around how they can feel better, you can say things like:
- “This must be so hard for you. Everything you are telling me makes sense, and I can understand how it must be making you feel this way.”
- “I want to offer support in any way that I can. You can talk to me.”
- “What do you need from me right now? Things have been hard for you.”
- “I hear you, and it takes strength to talk about this.”
Gently encourage professional help
When offering support, it is important to recognize your limits. A professional trained to support individuals with suicidal ideations might be needed. Let them know that although you are always there to listen, you want to make sure that they are offered the proper support. Offer them some resources if they require assistance, and reinforce the idea that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can click here to book a free 20-minute consultation to speak with one of our therapists. If you or someone you know is at imminent risk of suicide, visit your local emergency department or call 911.
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 833-456-4566
Distress Centre Toronto: 416-408-4357
Kids Help Line: 1-800-668-6868
CAMH: 416-535-8501 ext. 2
Good2Talk (Post secondary student helpline): 1-866-925-5454