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How to ask about suicide

I’ve been writing a lot about suicide and how to talk about it since Robin Williams’s death. I’m also, coincidentally, teaching a two-day suicide intervention course today and tomorrow.  

People often ask me how to talk to friends and family about suicide. They recognize, especially at times like this, that most of us are surrounded by struggling people every day, and that it would be good to be able to listen and offer help. These people care really deeply already, but they’re acutely conscious of wanting not to make things worse. Maybe you feel that way, too.

I hope you’ll start asking people about suicide.

It doesn’t have to be hard. You’re talking to them already, right? And you’ve got some sense that they’re really having a tough time right now? Say “It seems like you’re really struggling. Is it bad enough that you think of killing yourself?“.

Or maybe “I hear that things are bad. Bad enough to want to die?“. Or “Hey, you seem really down, and that makes me wonder whether you’re thinking about suicide“.

The specific words aren’t that important, although it’s best to use clear, direct language like “killing yourself” or “taking your own life” instead of vague words like “doing something to yourself” or “hurting yourself”, and you want to be as non-judgmental as possible (so, “do you want to die?” rather than “are you going to do something crazy like kill yourself?”). I like to ground my question in something I’ve observed, like “I’ve noticed that you seem really sad lately“, before asking the question.

Do your best to be clear, direct, and non-judgmental. And then stop worrying about the words and just ask the question.

It’s surprisingly hard to make yourself actually say the question when you’re talking to someone you care about. I’ve been teaching this stuff professionally for a decade and my heart still leaps into my throat every time I ask someone, and my voice chokes up a little bit. That’s okay. It’s okay if it happens to you. Swallow hard, take a deep breath, and ask the question. You can do this.

You might be worried that, by asking directly about suicide, you’d be making things worse. That you might push a person to do it. That’s a reasonable fear, but both the research and our experience say that it doesn’t happen. Mostly, people are relieved to be asked, and they’re often really glad that someone finally noticed.

If they say yes, get them talking about why. What makes them feel this way? Start with the feelings, listen to the hurt, and steer toward the pain. Help them to talk. Do your best to spend most of your time listening instead of talking. Care.

It may feel awkward, and you may not be sure you’re doing it right. Listen anyway. It starts with asking the question. You can do this.

You can do this.

You might also like my article about suicide and Robin Williams, or the one about the “permanent solution to a temporary problem” language. I welcome comments on this article. Please stay safe—if you’re here because you’re thinking about suicide, I hope you’ll reach out and talk to someone. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) anywhere in the USA.

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