What to say if someone tells you they are suicidal.

This is for Run Talk Run leaders. This is for Run Talk Run attendees. This is for any damn person who is interested in knowing how tosafely hold a conversation with someone who wants to end their life.

It is important for me to say here that I am not a therapist, and Iam not a counselor. I am a person who has a heartfelt drive to open up conversations on mental health and help other people support their peers through difficult times.

In this instance I want to focus on just one scenario. This scenariois that someone has explicitly told you that

  • They have considered suicide
  • They are having suicidal thoughts
  • They don’t believe life is worth living anymore

There are situations whereby someone might allude to the above, but I think that is another post for another time. This post is about what to dowhen the person struggling has made it clear what they intend to do.

Ask how they feel.

Quite often, when we are presented with something so upsetting and life-altering, we want to jump in and “fix” the situation. You may try and dothis through attempting to convince the person that life is worth living, thatthey would be leaving so much behind, that they have so much to live for. Thisis, to some extent, rather useless. What would be more helpful, is to actually hold the space for the person to express just what it is they are experiencing.Asking them how they feel offers them an opportunity to verbalise the struggles they are facing which brings them a step closer to resolution.

“Tell me how you’re feeling”

Don’t be judgemental.

Chances are, we simply just will not relate to the depths of painthat the person is experiencing. We may not necessarily understand how they have managed to reach such a morbid and final conclusion for their pain, but inorder to support the person in the best way we must try and reserve ourjudgement on the situation until we are far from the person at hand.

“I haven’t experienced this myself, describe it to me, I am here to listen”

Be supportive withoutreinforcing their behavior.

There is a fine line between showing the person you have heard what they are telling you, and reinforcing what they are telling you.

“I am here for you”

Educate yourself.

If for example, you are holding this conversation with someone you live with, or someone you are very close to, it can be really helpful toeducate yourself on whatever cause has led them to this state of mind. That might be trauma, mental ill health, bereavement, financial difficulty… the moreeducated we are, the better we can understand and support the person whom weare interacting with. We might never appreciate the depths of pain being experienced, and we have to embrace that. But we must do what we can.

“I don’t know much about this, but I have heard that others in your situation have felt XYZ – is this true foryou?”

Acknowledge their pain.

Just let the person feel heard. Sit with them in their pain, acknowledge it. It can be hard to convey emotional distress adequately, sohelping a person feel “heard” is so important.

“This sounds really painful”

Do not promiseconfidentiality.

Don’t make promises that you cannot keep. If someone approaches youto talk about this topic then you must make it clear that if you believe themto be at risk to themselves then you will have to seek adequate support.

“I am here to listen, butif I believe you are at risk to yourself I will have to tell someone else. Are you ok to carry on?”

Don’t avoid the subject.

This one should go without saying really. If someone has approached you and shared that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts then donot try and change the topic. It would have taken so much courage and bravery to bring this conversation to you, so take it seriously.  

“I appreciate you bringing this to me, this was incredibly brave. Lets talk about it”

Encourage them to seekhelp.

This was probably the point you were all waiting for. Encourage theperson to seek help. If possible, do what you can to support the person inseeking that help – e.g. offering to go to the GP with them, or researching online what the best solution might be.

“What are your thoughts onseeing a GP about this? Can I make things any easier for you?”

Wrapping up theconversation

It is always a good idea to leave the person with some helplines they can call in times of crisis. Following this….

Ask about imminent plans.

A useful way to wrap up a conversation with someone who has been experiencing suicidal thoughts is to ask about their plans for the week ahead. Not only is “thinking ahead” and powerful and positive way for the person struggling to keep seeing a future for themselves, but it can also bereassuring for yourself to hear that they are making plans to be around others and not in isolation.

“What do you have going on for the rest of this week?”

Hopefully the above may help just a little bit. It isn’t prescriptive. Things are not so clear cut. Ever. Especially with matters as big as suicide.

If the persons threats are imminent – i.e. they have told you thatonce they have left you they will take their own life, then I firmly believe that you are responsible for keeping that person within your sights and taking the person to A&E.

And after having such an intense and heavy conversation – look after yourself.

If you have any further suggestions or comments on how to hold conversations such as these then please do email me or comment on the blog. It is a heavy heavy topic, and I am not an expert. I will never claim to be an expert, however I do think that non-mental-health-professionals are going to be presented with these conversations at some point in their lives and that we allshould be prepared for when that moment happens.

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