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Suicide Prevention: What To Say, What Not To Say

John Giampaolo, Community Engagement Specialist — September 17, 2019 — 3 min read
As one of the leading causes of death in the United States, suicide impacts nearly everyone. In fact, 47,000 people were lost to suicide in 2017 alone, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.
 
When someone you know is experiencing hurt and pain that may lead them to consider suicide, it’s important to try to help. That means being there for them, being patient, and using supportive and caring language that encourages them to open up and seek help when they’re ready.
 
Sometimes, though, the words we use can be hurtful — even if it’s not on purpose. Some very common words and phrases can make someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts feel like they’re not being seen or heard as an individual.

Talking about suicide prevention in a helpful way

Here are some tips you can use to know what language and actions are more helpful.
 

When talking to someone who may be considering suicide:

Say This (to the person)

Not That

What’s the matter? Are you okay? What’s wrong with you?
Have you had thoughts of suicide? You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?
Have you thought of taking your life?
(Note: This question is clear, to-the-point, and non-accusatory.)
Have you thought of hurting yourself?
(Note: Since there are many ways a person could hurt themselves, this question may be too unclear to someone who needs help.)
I am concerned about you. I’m always here for you. This too shall pass.
We can get help. Let’s find someone who can help together. You need help. You should call someone.
 

When talking about suicide in a conversation:

Say This (in general conversation)

Not That

Someone was “lost to suicide” or “died by suicide.” Someone “committed suicide”, or a “successful suicide”
I understand that they are hurting. They are weak; they want attention.
 

How to be respectful and understanding:

Be

Not

Patient Rushed
Empathetic Judgmental or accusatory
Confident and clear Vague or hesitant
Persistent and positive Dismissive or negative
Action-oriented All talk and lip-service

The key thing to think about is to approach any conversation with respect. Try to provide a safe space. Let the person know that you truly care about them, that you’re concerned, and that you’re there for them. It may take more than one try before someone feels that they can trust you, so be both positive and persistent. Make sure they know there’s no time limit on your offer of help. It may take a while before they’re ready to engage, and that’s fine.
 
It’s also important to help make your friend or loved one aware of the support network in their own lives already. Ask if there are additional people they know who they can reach out to. Make sure they have contact information for those individuals readily available. Knowing that there are plenty of people they can turn to can help instill a level of hope, so the individual feels less alone.
 
Make it easier for the person to engage with professional help, as well. Ask them if it would be okay if you called a help line together. Or, go to the behavioral health clinic with them. Make it clear that asking for help when it’s needed is always okay.
 

Call a suicide prevention hotline

If you or a loved one are facing a mental health emergency or thinking about suicide, call one of the help lines listed below, go the emergency room, or dial 911 and request a “CIT-trained” officer. That means you’re asking for someone trained in crisis intervention.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential prevention and crisis support any time of day or night at 800-273-TALK (8255). Or you can chat online.
  • The Cardinal Innovations crisis line is answered by trained professionals within 30 seconds any time of day or night. Call 1-800-939-5911 for a safe environment to talk, get referrals or get immediate help.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides helpful insights and resources to support individuals with mental illness and has local chapters throughout the nation.
Need Mental Health Help Fast?

Call **ASK (star-star-2-7-5) from your cell phone or 1-800-939-5911.

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