It’s a myth that asking someone if they are suicidal will suddenly implant the idea. As a highly stigmatized topic, it’s not surprising that there is misinformation about discussing it with those who may be at risk. Without any specific training on how to talk about suicide, it’s easy to feel ill-equipped to bring it up even if you want to.
Until I became a crisis counselor, I had no idea how to talk to someone about suicide. In conversations about mental health, I hoped that what I was saying was helpful, but it was hard not to be concerned about having the perfect language to address such delicate topics. When I first began training to become a crisis counselor, I quickly learned that helping someone who is struggling or in an active crisis is not about knowing the absolute right thing to say. With every conversation I have had in this role, my job has been to help keep the person safe and that includes understanding if the person is a danger to themselves or others. With that comes two goals: to support the person through the heat of whatever their specific crisis is and to assess for suicidal ideation. Whether suicide is directly related to the crisis or not, it is important in that role to understand if and how suicidality comes into that person’s mental health.
Before training as a crisis counselor, I would have cowered at the idea of asking someone directly about suicide, but I’ve learned that asking doesn’t have to be as difficult as I once thought. More than the words used, I’ve relied on creating an environment where the other person knows that they are supported and cared for. I’ve learned there isn’t harm in asking someone if they are having thoughts of ending their life if it’s done in a way that’s gentle and nonjudgmental. Language that acknowledges the other person’s struggle can be a useful precursor to the difficult conversation that may ensue. The tools I’ve been given through training are accessible to anyone, so here are a few approaches I’ve found useful in conversations about mental health issues and suicide.
“A lot of people who are dealing with X have feelings of ending their life. Have you had any of these thoughts?”
“I really appreciate that you were willing to share X with me. I care about you and want to make sure you are safe…”
“You’re so brave to talk about what you’re going through…”
“I know that this can be hard to talk about, but I want to check in with you to make sure you’re safe…”
“It’s ok if you’re not ready to talk about it yet, but I want you to know that I’m always here if you do.”
When it comes down to it, asking someone who is struggling or in crisis isn’t the wrong thing to do. There are people who will be receptive and open up and there are others who won’t be comfortable talking, but asking opens a door. It tells whoever you are talking to that you are there for them and that you’re not scared to talk about what they are going through whenever and if ever they are ready.