Asking if someone is suicidal won’t give them ideas, but it may help them feel less alone. A 2014 meta-analysis (that’s a study that gathers and measures data from other studies to create really robust evidence about a hypothesis) by researchers Dazzi et al. at Cambridge University supports this. But how can we get better at these really hard conversations? Read on to learn some practical tips:
Why Asking Someone About Suicide and Self Harm Is Hard
Crisis – whether it’s our own or someone else’s- can shift our brain into trauma response. Instead of thinking clearly, planning, and responding well, brains in a trauma state default to Fight or Flight (or, as researchers have discovered, Fawn or Freeze). To make these conversations easier, there are a few ways we can prepare:
1. Get Used to the Word “Suicide”
A first step towards diffusing the terror of conversations that acknowledge suicide can be to simply aim to compassionately say the word in a conversation this week. It might be a life line- or, it might just be a tiny step towards creating a safe space for someone in your world to say “I’m scared how much I want to hurt myself. Help?”
2. Practice Having Conversations about Suicidal Thoughts
When we enter these brave conversations, our pulse may spike, we may stumble on words, and we may even want to escape the conversation. Here’s a tip to stay present: literally practicing saying the words can help.
To practice, pair up with a friend or partner and rehearse what it’s like to say things like:
- “Sometimes when people are struggling with stuff like this, they have thoughts about suicide, are you having those thoughts?”
- “I’m really concerned about you and I wonder if you feel like you can keep yourself safe right now?” or
- “I want you to know that if you ever feel suicidal, I’m here for you. Call me and we’ll figure out together how to keep you safe.”
Most people’s inclination is to avoid words like “suicide,” “death,” or “kill,” but there’s strong evidence (Research Source 1, Source 2) that being explicit, clear, and direct in our questions can result in more honest conversations.
Getting used to saying these emotionally-charged words and statements now can help us show up and speak bravely when the chips are down.
3. Create and Know How to Create Safety Plans
As a clinician and human, I love safety plans. Done well, a safety plan can be a comfort to someone struggling with mental health and those who care about them. It’s a way to plan what to do, where to go, and who to talk to when things are Very Bad, so when that day comes we don’t have to start from scratch deciding who to reach out to or how to do it.
You can download a free safety plan template and read more about making one in my article on safety planning. Alternately, to get really cozy with safety planning, check out a mug, poster, or pillow with this crisis plan design.
Gentle reminder that Instagram is not therapy and my resources are educational, not therapeutic. If you need help, reach out to the #crisistextline (click here to start the conversation) and ask to be connected with resources. If you need help urgently, call 911 or local mental health emergency services. (In Seattle, that is crisis connections at 206-461-3222.) Or find treatment options through SAMHSA.
Download a Printable PDF of this Resource:
Suicide among teenage girls has DOUBLED since 2007. We can all help. Connect, mentor, or financially support youth art, youth music, and youth mentorship.
If you are suicidal, know there is hope. I spent so much of my life in a dark dark place and had no capacity to imagine my life as it is now: full of life and embodiment, sacred, creative, connected. Tell someone. If they don’t take you seriously tell someone else. Call a hotline. It might not be the first, second, or seventh one you try, but I promise there is a resource, health care provider, or therapist who can find you in that dark place.