Speaking to a Suicidal Person


Juairia Haque Mahi


In a world where the suicide rate is one per forty seconds, steadily conversing with suicidal people can help axe their compulsion to end their lives.

If you find potential risks in a person indicating that they may want to attempt suicide, or if you’re certain that someone has suicidal thoughts, the lists of what to say to a suicidal person, and what not to — are as follows.

What You Should NOT Say or Do

 

1. Telling them to just stop being suicidal or making them feel guilty

“You have enough assets and a family to care about. Poor people face worse situations. Many people are battling with diseases. So many people have it worse than you. Be grateful for the life you have.”

Yes, people face worse circumstances, but helplessness, anguish, and restraint are also valid emotions and difficulties that suicidal people experience. Diluting their traumatising experience is neither rational nor helpful; rather, it conveys doubt and judgement, not an understanding of their state.

 

2. Nothing at all

This indicates your implicit disinterest to hear them out and may even seem like you’re listening to them out of mercy. Suicidal people do not seek pity.

 

3. Changing the subject

Telling them what they’re facing happens to all or a lot of people, and changing the subject by declaring that self-destructive thoughts are inane can lead to suicidal people feeling ashamed or embarrassed. It can even lead them to become more emotionally restrained.

 

4. “Stop playing the victim card”

It’s time we regarded mental illnesses to be as deleterious as physical diseases. Telling people to stop playing the victim card trivialises their mental conditions. It is as farcical as telling a kidney patient to stop explaining how aching dialysis is. They’re seeking help, not negative attention.

 

5. Cracking jokes

Even though the intent is to alleviate their pain, cracking jokes belittles their situation and hinders them from sharing more.  

 

6. Warning them of the reality

Suicidal people feel trapped in a stagnant limbo where death seems to be the only escape. “Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems” — is factual, but too harsh to be grasped by those who are suicidal. The biggest problem with this statement is, it emphasises suicide as a solution; some may really choose this as the ultimate solution to their unbearable problems.

 

7. Threatening them

“I’ll call your family if you keep talking like this.”

Even though the intent is to help, threatening to call others can frighten the emotionally vulnerable who intrepidly shared their conditions with you. Some may consider this a betrayal and not share their thoughts again with you.

 

8. Claiming suicide is egotistical

“Your family loves you, I care for you, and I believe there are more who look up to you. Killing yourself would be selfish.” 

Or, “You have children. What would happen to them if you commited suicide?”

Many suicidal people think of themselves as burdens to their families. In their sombre states, they might consider suicide as a way to liberate their family from such a burden.

Again, a majority of depressed people exist because of their familial issues. It doesn’t lessen their life-spurn, rather bottling up their emotions can lead them to feel dead inside. Dysthymia is an explicable suffering and labelling suicide as selfishness make them guilt-tripped and unwelcomed to open up.

 

9. “Be/Stay strong”

This can lead some suicidal people to feel as if their feelings are weak and abnormal. Everyone has their own limits of tolerance. Telling them to stay strong accentuates their vulnerability. If you say, “You have so much to exist for”, it may gather hope for some, but in most cases, this statement profoundly lacks grasp.

 

10. “Things could be worse”

Acknowledging this does not lessen pain or bring a lustre of hope in their insufferable conditions.

“Lots of victims are living, they don’t commit suicide.”

Suppose, a person is by-birth impaired — no properly-formed legs or hands — while someone had to cut off their talus because of an accident. The former situation is undoubtedly harder, but the latter is painful as well.

Comparing suicidal people’s situations with others’ can lead to more self-criticism.

 

11. Suicide is religiously unjustifiable 

“You will go to hell if you commit suicide.”

This does nothing but inflame their estrangement, and aggravate their escapist thoughts. Suicidal people are well-aware of it. Their notion of religion, heaven, hell, and salvation may not be similar to yours.

“Pray more”, “You’re feeling like this because you don’t pray”, “You’re deviated from the path of religion”  — statements like these can be harsh to mentally distressed people. They might get more distressed thinking their prayers were somehow wrong and that the Almighty hates them.

Prayers can work as someone’s coping mechanism. That does not mean prayer is the one and only way for everyone to recover from mental breakdowns.

 

12. Not taking them seriously

Yes, actions speak louder than words. But outright telling them that they’re not serious, or if they were, they would’ve done it by then — are inconsiderate and invalidating.

What if a person is truly suicidal and more than just frustrated? As a listener, not considering the context, and not putting yourself in their shoes minimise and downplay their situation.

Your dismissiveness may accelerate their demonstration, and become a reason to showcase their seriousness by acting on their suicidal thoughts.

 

13. Claiming they’ll soon be alright

At this point you may think, “What is even left to say to suicidal people?” But it is unrealistic and incredibly difficult for them to envisage things getting better.

Instead, you could show empathy for their condition.

Consistent depression also makes the positive sides of things seem nonexistent. Advising them to engage in different activities to distract their minds is easier said than done.

 

14. “Go to a therapist”/“I’m not your therapist”

Telling someone to seek professional help can be effective, but suggesting this to people who confide in you before completely listening to them can indicate that you don’t want to be bothered.

You can suggest it after hearing them out, and offer your company and support as well.

 

What You Should Say or Do

 

1. Be respectful

Acknowledge the person’s emotions, as emotions lead to actions. Suicidal people are often not thinking logically, and their impulsive feelings can override their rationality.

Hence, disrespecting their emotions can shut down communication.

 

2. Focus on the why and what, confirm suicidal questions

When someone morosely contemplates suicide, ask them 

  • What makes you feel suicidal?
  • What caused these thoughts?
  • Why do you want to do so?
  • What would make you feel better?
  • Is there someone we could talk to?
  • Does anyone else know about it?
  • What’s your plan? How do you want to do it?

Framing your sentences appropriately while conversing with suicidal people can offer rays of hope to their dim morale.

Remember that a single event doesn’t lead to suicide; it is rather a chain of events, by degrees, which pushes someone to the extreme point of helplessness when taking away life seems the best solution.

A majority of suicidal people don’t have definite plans. If they sound as if they’re in immediate danger, contact authorities. If the person sounds like a potential attempter, take them to seek professional help even if they deny the assistance.

They will be thankful for it once they are in a more stable state of mind.

 

3. Listen carefully and take them seriously 

Just talking to someone can ease their mental burden. Listening to what they say without interrupting them can make a great difference.

Don’t pressurise, but validate and show patience and openness that might encourage them to share and vent their pent-up emotions.

 

4. “I have no idea how it must feel”

Even if you’ve faced similar issues, you don’t need to relate by saying, “I know exactly how it feels.” This can squash their sentiment, as you could survive with it and they’re unable to do so.

Patiently handle them by directing what you did to cope, without acknowledging in the very beginning that you’ve faced the same.

 

5. Saying that you don’t want them to die

It’s axiomatic, but clearly vocalising it can make them rethink their decision. While saying so, make sure your words don’t sound how enjoyable or important they are to you.

Yes, because they’re not thinking of what you mean to them. Instead, remind them of their self-worth and why they are important as individuals.

 

6. “I’m worried about you”

Many suicidal people believe that other people do not understand their suicidal thoughts.

  • Assure them by your words that you’re concerned.
  • Reach out to them if they haven’t reached out to you. If their posts, tweets, or any activity strikes you as a potential risk; call, mail, or text them immediately.

Show support by letting them know that you notice and you’re always there to listen.

 

7. “I have no idea what to say”

Saying this is better than attempting to crack jokes to ease them, or changing the subject. You don’t need to be an expert to lend advice, simply listen without judgement.

 

8. Bring them something

If you’re aware of their condition, you can bring them chips, a cold-drink, or a miniature gift when you meet them. You can keep sending them cute e-comics, videos, and memes to cheer them up.

Remind them that you care, and there are still good and positive things in the world, be they little, which are worth living for. 

 

9. Keep them talking 

Talking their hearts out can soothe them and wind down their momentum of acting on their feelings.

 

10. “I’m glad that you shared it with me” 

Freaking out after hearing suicidal ideas redirects suicidal people to solace the hurt and pull away from the disbelieving persons. They might repent sharing it in the first place.

Whereas, comforting them by saying that you’re glad they told you vitalises the divulgence of suicidal thoughts.

 

11. Invite them to tell you more 

“It’s saddening that you’re going through this”, “That must be heartbreaking”, “It’s terrible” — these statements show empathy and can validate the person’s affliction.

Show empathy and comprehension, validate, patiently ask them to tell you more.

You can also clarify that you’re a safe space where they can further share their suicidal thoughts if it helps prevent despondency and solitude.

 

12. Ask if they’ve felt this way before

Act compassionately and ask what they did to cope with suicidal thoughts if they had faced it before. Salvation lies within.

 

13. Encourage them

After listening to them properly, ask if they have visited therapists.

  • Calmly encourage them to call a suicide hotline number or find them a good therapist. If they are hesitant or not motivated to consult a counsellor or doctor, find them help from a support group.

You may offer to accompany them to an appointment with a mental health provider.

  • Encourage them to avoid substance abuse and communicate with you regularly.
  • Encourage them to engage in physical activities that please them.
  • Slowly encourage them into meditation and self-care habits. When they’re ready, set small manageable objectives and plans for them to follow.   

Just like patients need to visit hospitals for surgery, suicidal people must receive necessary treatment from mental health providers and doctors as soon as possible.   

 

It is often hard to perceive whether someone is suicidal or not. You may think your actions are inadequate to deal with a suicidal person. If someone’s behaviour seems as if they’re grappling with serious issues, your intervention may help the person realise that other choices are available for them to stay secure and get proper treatment.  

 


The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.  

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