4 Tips for Having a Conversation About Suicide

Government/Non-ProfitHealthcareHigher EdPK-12Suicide Prevention

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a reminder about the importance of awareness about how to talk about suicide with someone who you are concerned about.

Communication is key. Here we outline a few best practices for how to talk about suicide.

1. Prepare

First, recognize the warning signs that someone may be having suicidal thoughts. These include:

  • Talking about or making plans for suicide
  • Expressing hopelessness about the future
  • Displaying severe/overwhelming emotional pain or distress
  • Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, particularly in the presence of the warning signs above.

Second, it’s important to note that there’s a common misconception that bringing up the topic of suicide will make someone more likely to harm themselves. Studies actually show that acknowledging and talking about suicide may, in fact, reduce suicidal ideation, rather than increase it. Knowing how to talk about suicide is key since suicide is often preventable.

Before you begin your conversation, there are a few things to keep in mind. Think about where and when you want to talk. Ideally, this is in a private space when you and the other person have some uninterrupted time. Then, think about your goal for the conversation. Effective communication strategies such as motivational interviewing can help guide what you say, what you don’t say, and how to make the other person open up and feel motivated to take a positive action.

Finally, it’s crucial to prepare yourself to act immediately if you fear that someone may be a danger to themselves or others. Don’t let the person out of your sight until you’ve connected them with professional help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, is an excellent 24/7 resource for getting support on how to handle this situation and the person who is thinking about suicide.

2. Making Statements

To begin your conversation, start by focusing on the warning signs you’ve observed. The way you bring up this behavior can make a big difference in how the other person will respond. Saying something like “You’ve been freaking out lately over little things” can seem too critical. One technique to avoid making the other person defensive is using “I” statements, as in “I feel like…”. Try to stay positive and be specific. Throughout the conversation, take some time to reflect back and restate what you’ve heard.

3. Asking Questions

Using open-ended questions is an important technique for getting more information from the person you’re talking to. It allows them to be an active participant in the conversation and gives room for them to open up about how they’re feeling. One example is: “You said things have been really hard lately. What’s going on?”

When you’re ready to talk about next steps, avoid saying what you think someone should do. So instead of saying “I think you should see a counselor,” rephrase as an open-ended question: “How would you feel about getting help?” Hence, you want to give the other person ownership over ideas and decisions to increase the likelihood that they will pursue them.

4. Practice

Did we mention that it isn’t easy to be ready for how to talk about suicide? Playing a role in suicide prevention training is new for most people. The techniques mentioned above don’t always come naturally, especially learning to control your emotions during the conversation to think about what you want to say before you respond.

As opposed to practicing in the mirror or with a friend, it can be more effective to try conversation techniques with virtual humans. If you are interested in trying out a conversation for yourself that includes the techniques above, check out these demos for talking with K-12 students, college students, veterans, and LGBTQ students.