How to Talk Responsibly About Suicide

Whenever suicide is in the news, it can open up an opportunity to†discuss a very serious issue — but when that conversation is handled badly, it can contribute to stigma and copycat attempts. There are a few easy†steps you can†take to communicate ethically and responsibly about suicide, whether you’re talking to friends and family, debunking myths at work or wondering how to help someone in trouble.

In the United States, nearly 45,000 people die by suicide annually, and it is the tenth leading cause of death. There are roughly 25 attempts for every successful suicide. While middle-aged white men are most at risk of death by suicide, it can affect people of all ages, races and genders. The good news is that though many people die by suicide every year, many more†don’t†because they get help — and there are a lot of options available†for those struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Know Your Myths

Common myths about suicide affect the way we have conversations about prevention.

For example, you may have heard that people who talk about suicide aren’t really at risk, because they’re just engaging in a “cry for attention” — in fact, they may be asking for help.

You may also have†be under the impression that discussing suicide or asking if someone is suicidal will be a “trigger” for an attempt — but†that’s not true.

Other myths include: beliefs that once someone attempts and survives, they won’t try again; suicide can’t be prevented; suicide is always linked to mental illness; suicide is the result of weakness or lack of courage; telling someone to “cheer up” can help them “think their way out” of suicidal feelings; single incidents like bad test results or getting fired can†instigate suicide; or suicide happens unpredictably and without warning.

Speak Frankly But Not Graphically

In conversations about suicide, try to avoid euphemisms like “committed suicide” or “passed away suddenly.” It’s okay to say that someone†killed themselves or died by suicide — advocates recommend against saying “committed” because suicide is not a crime, and it can be a stigmatizing term.

But don’t go into graphic detail about the method used or how the body was found.†Offering too much information†can contribute to “copycat” incidents — a particularly big issue for the media.

Think about the difference between a headline like “Local Man Dies at 27″ and “Local Man Kills Himself By Jumping Off Popular Landmark.”

If you’re not sure whether something is appropriate to talk about, ask yourself how it pertains to the story. A statement to a friend, like “my mother†died by suicide, so I know how you feel” is frank and compassionate, but it doesn’t contain traumatizing information like how she died or who found her body — because it’s not relevant. Calibrate your statements for the occasion — if someone says they were traumatized by finding a body, for example, sharing your own experience could be beneficial.

Be clear about warning signs, including: talking about suicide; feelings of hopelessness; withdrawal from the community; talking about being a “burden”; mood swings; reckless behavior; and activity that’s wildly out of character for someone. While it can feel uncomfortable to talk plainly about suicide and risk factors, being open about these topics can help break down stigma.

Be Open to Conversation

You never know who’s been affected by suicide, whether in the form of a loss or past struggles of their own. When suicide is in the news or people are talking about it more generally, remain open and nonjudgmental. That can make people feel more comfortable about discussing their issues, and it signals that you’re a safe person to talk to if someone needs help.

If someone approaches you to ask for help, listen to their concerns and work with them on accessing help. Don’t let someone promise to “check out these resources” and get back to you: Stay with them through their connection to a suicide hotline or provider of mental health services.

Offer concrete help: Are you in a safe place right now, or do you need help getting to a safe place? Are you having suicidal thoughts? Have you made a plan? Do you have access to something you could use to hurt yourself? Do you need my help accessing services? Do you want to talk? Do you want to just sit quietly together/watch Netflix/talk about something that has nothing to do with the news for a little while? Do you need me to call a friend or family member?

Focus on†that individual and their needs: If someone says they are suicidal, ask them about their reasons for living, rather than putting your own on them.

Think: “I know you’re really excited about that concert next month, can you tell me a little more about that?”

Not: “I would be so sad if you weren’t around anymore.”

Don’t promise to keep their distress a secret: You need to help someone access services, and while ideally that will involve sitting by†as they call a hotline or a service provider — or transporting them voluntarily for treatment — you may end up in a situation where you need to tell someone else.

Help Is Available

Someone who’s feeling hopeless may think there’s no other option, but that’s simply not true. It’s important to understand that suicidal ideation isn’t a personal failing or weakness. After all, many people struggle with these feelings at some point in their lives.

Some†individuals find counseling and medication on a short or long-term basis to be incredibly helpful, but those aren’t the only treatments available. People manage their mental health with a variety of complementary and alternative medicine, including group therapy, exercise and more. They can work with counselors and mental health providers to figure out what works best for them.

Being suicidal and seeking help also doesn’t mean that someone will automatically be referred to a mental health facility — but if they are, hospitalization can help†them get stabilized and organized to take care of themselves. And if they’re stressed out about what being in the hospital might mean for their job security, houseplants or anything else, offer to help out. Maybe that means taking care of their pets for a few days, or contacting their employer on their behalf to say they need to take some personal time or sick days — or getting together with friends to raise money to help with the costs of care and lost wages.

You may also interact with people in the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Many of the same rules above apply, including offering†concrete†assistance, being nonjudgmental and keeping your communication clear but not unnecessarily graphic. You should also avoid asking about specific details.

Remember that conversations about suicide can be stressful, and it’s okay to call a hotline or reach out to a mental health professional to have a conversation about your own health and how you can protect yourself, even if you’re not feeling suicidal. Many people experience intense emotions when someone they have a connection to attempts — or dies by — suicide, and they may need a safe space to talk about these feelings and work through them.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline for resources and support.†

Photo Credit: Aricka Lewis/Unsplash

31 comments

Chad A
Chad Anderson2 months ago

Thank you!

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Colin C
Colin Clauscen2 months ago

I had a friend commit suicide on his second attempt, he was middle age lost his job, struggled on for over a year but could not find work, it was so sad. I think I understand what he went through.

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Winn A
Winn Adams2 months ago

Noted

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 months ago

Thanks.

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Shirley S
Shirley S2 months ago

I have wondered if the cause of suicide is an imbalance of hormones.

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Christine Stewart
Christine Stewart2 months ago

thank you

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Anne Moran
Anne Moran2 months ago

Hard to know if someone is suicidal,, just look at the famous people who committed suicide in the past few years,, they all had very good lives,, and seemed happy with their lot in life... - They are good at hiding their feelings, so therefor,, difficult to help them out... - Another thing,, if you REALLY want to commit suicide, you'll do it in the first go,, like jumping off a bridge/building... - Many ''attempted'' suicides are a cry for help,, they don't really want to die...

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Susanne W
Susanne Wiesneth2 months ago

Working in an emergency ambulance, I was confronted with lots of suicide attempts. Who really wants to die, will make it. By the way, it's just the way it is. But most of the suicide attempts I've experienced, were nothing more than a call for help. Nobody really wanted to die, but everybody just didn't want to continue living under existing conditions. Exactly that's the difference. Out of experience we know: it doesn't help to "pack those patients in cotton", on the contrary, they have to be "put on the pot", it's hard, yes, but it's the only way to help them. And believe me, all patients were grateful to be heard and taken seriously, contrary to their relatives, thinking them to be "out of reason". Responsibly dealing with this topic means to have an open ear, to have a special antenna for irregularities, just being right there if somebody seems to be in need. It's so much easier than you might think - just to be there, to listen to someone being in need, to call 911, if necessary, don't be afraid to to that, it could safe a life.

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JinnySITEISSUES L
JinnySITEISSUES L2 months ago

Walk in the shoes of one who has committed suicide and just maybe you will finally get it as to why......my sibling committed suicide and we celebrate who he was and his life daily forever. Thanks for posting.

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Alea C
Alea C2 months ago

I'd have to know someone in danger of committing suicide first, and I don't.

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