What to Say to a Person Considering Suicide

Here’s the scenario…

You have good reason to believe (or, at least, strongly suspect) a friend or loved one is considering taking their own life.

First of all, should you say anything?  YES.  Always err on the side of caution.  If you’re wrong, you’ve lost nothing.  But, if you’re right – you’ve just might have saved a life.

So, what can I say that may help them choose to live?

Finding my own son’s body on May 13, 2013, after he’d taken his own life, changed everything, as you can imagine.  He was 19.

When I finally began recovering psychologically I had a decision to make.  I could choose to live in despair the rest of my life, or I could muster the mental and emotional strength I had left and choose to help others choose to live.

My family and I chose the latter.

One of the workshops I attended to begin equipping myself to help suicidal people was sponsored by ASIST, an acronym for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills & Training.

The following questions were taught to us to ask a person we suspect is in immediate risk of harming themselves.

NOTE:  These questions must be asked gently, tenderly, free of any tone of guilt, shame or condemnation.  A condescending tone, alone, could serve as the final “poke in the chest” sending someone over the proverbial edge of the cliff.  A person considering suicide is operating with a brain that is, in some part, broken.  The last thing they need is to be looked upon pitifully or judgmentally.

Question No. 1:

“Are you considering taking your life?”

At first glance, this question may seem odd to ask.  But, chances are high that the person considering suicide has never admitted this out loud.  To actually hear themselves admit they are considering taking their own life may well serve as a warning siren going off in their head helping jolt them back into some sense of reality.

Should they shrug their shoulders, or say “I don’t know,” you simply reply with, “I’m not comfortable with that answer.  I’m not leaving until I know you’re ok.”

Question No. 2:

“Why do you want to die?”

NOTE: Ninety-nine percent of those who attempt to take their life don’t want to die; they just want the pain to stop.

Again, by asking this question, you are gently and tenderly validating their pain which is so crushingly severe it has brought them to a place dark enough to prompt them to the point of considering taking their own life.

This is huge:  while they are sharing reasons for which they want to die, you are listening to reasons for why they want to live.

For example:  often, a person experiencing this level of pain will reply with something like, “I am tired of being a burden to my family.”  This tells us they deeply love their family.  Or, “I am a failure at work, or school.”  This tells us they are suffering from crushingly low self-worth, or feeling void of purpose in life.

Question No. 3:

“What I’m hearing you say is that part of you wants to die.  But I’m also hearing you say part of you wants to live.  Could I be right? So we need to protect the part of you that wants to live.”

Note the latter part of this question: “So we need to protect the part of you that wants to live.”

By saying “we” you are making certain they know they are not alone.  By helping them come to grips with that part of them “wanting to live” you are giving them hope by helping them reconnect with the logical part of their brain.

More food-for-thought:

We commonly say to people who are hurting:

“If you need anything, just let me know.”

A better response: 

“I can see you’re struggling.  I’m here for you.  Can we get through this together?”

One last thing…

I am attaching here a short clip (less than 3 minutes) that I show at the close of my public talks.  It’s from the 1998 film, Patch Adams, based on the true story of physician, Hunter “Patch” Adams.  Patch, played by Robin Williams, has checked himself into a Psychiatric Ward.  During the day, everyone is free to roam around the Day Room where there is a television and opportunities to play games and visit with one another.  One patient, Arthur, angrily approaches one person after another putting his hand in their face with four fingers showing, and asks, “How many fingers do you see?”  Of course, they all reply “four”.  He retorts, “No!” and storms off.  Finally one night, Patch (Williams) visits Arthur’s room to attempt to find the answer to Arthur’s question.  Watch the clip here and I will offer insight I draw from the clip.

When a person is considering taking their life all they can see is despair, depression, shame and hopelessness.  Our goal is to help them “see beyond the fingers” and see what is true:  they are a treasure of infinite worth & value; there is hope; there is help available in abundance; their loss would be devastating; and they are loved beyond comprehension.

For Narnia, Nick