How to Talk to Someone Considering Suicide

Editor’s note: This column contains non-graphic references to suicide.

Friends, family, teachers and peers — not mental health professionals — are often the first to notice someone who is struggling. As the first person to notice, your opportunity to connect and refer someone for additional support can make a life-changing impact.

We are all capable of falling into crisis and considering suicide, especially when hopelessness and helplessness start to close in. Thoughts of suicide are a human experience, not a sign of personal failure or flaw. Struggles with suicide need not be the end of the story and can be a signal that we need more support than we currently have.

Although it has been decades since I last struggled with suicide, as an undergrad at UF I did contemplate ending my life.

Thankfully, counseling helped. These days, I work for UF’s Counseling and Wellness Center where I support students who may themselves be thinking about suicide.

Research suggests that more than 13% of college students were seriously considering suicide within the past 12 months. At UF, that means over 5,000 student Gators have considered suicide this past year. Between the pandemic, final exams, the holidays, the election, racial violence and the profound distress of our shaken world, we need to be prepared to support each other should suicidal thoughts arise.

People who are suicidal may talk about it explicitly but more often drop hints or clues.

“If anything happens to me, look after my cat.”

“I just don’t want to be here anymore.”

Sometimes people don’t say anything but give away valued possessions, explore ways to die on the internet or visit a gun shop. And yet others post on social media, making jokes about suicide or alluding to death. We encourage you to know the warning signs to better identify people who may be at risk, and then take the courageous step to reach out rather than imagining somebody else will.

In the Counseling and Wellness Center’s suicide prevention program, we teach participants to directly ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?”

Contrary to popular belief, asking a suicidal person about suicide will not push them closer to the edge. Instead, asking shows you care and that you’re willing to connect with them even if suicide is on their minds. And, asking won’t plant the idea in their heads if they weren’t considering suicide. Instead, your willingness to ask makes you more trustworthy if they ever do need support.

If someone says they are thinking about suicide, listen openly and respond without judgment. Avoid minimizing or invalidating responses such as, “Don’t be silly, your mom would miss you” or “That seems a bit extreme, don’t you think?”

Assuming someone is not in the middle of a suicide attempt (in which case, call for urgent assistance), the best thing you can do is express compassion and curiosity about the feelings and experiences underneath the thoughts of suicide. This can be something simple like, “Thank you for trusting me. This must be such a hard time for you. Can you share a little more about what’s been so difficult lately?”

Because people considering suicide often feel lonely and disconnected, your willingness to ask about suicide and validate the pain underneath the suicidal thoughts can be the first step toward healing. The next step is to encourage that person to get some additional help from a counselor or other trusted resource. Research indicates that most people who get help for their suicidal crises won’t ever be suicidal again. And, for those who struggle with longer-term suicidal thoughts, getting additional support can make the difference between life or death.

When someone confides in you about suicide, encourage them to contact one of the many resources available locally and nationally. Enrolled UF students can start with the CWC (352-392-1575), where our on-call crisis counselors will learn more about the situation and recommend next steps. Non-students can contact the Alachua County Crisis Center (352-264-6789) or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). If you’re not sure how to help someone you’re concerned about (whether they are a student or not), CWC crisis counselors can always consult with you.

To learn more, check out the Struggling with Suicide episode of the CWC Talks podcast, where campus suicide expert Dr. Meggen Sixbey goes in-depth about what a person considering suicide might be thinking and feeling. The CWC also has Suicide Prevention Resources with additional phone numbers, myths and facts about suicide, and more. Another meaningful resource is the Live Through This website devoted to portraits and interviews with people who have survived suicide attempts.

This article was written by Dr. Sara Nash and originally published on November 23rd, 2020 in the Alligator.