Though it can be difficult to talk about suicide, it’s important to listen without judgment and offer support when a loved one is in crisis. Making a safety plan can also help them navigate intense emotions in the future.

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Suicide is a serious issue around the globe. In fact, in 2020, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Suicidal behavior can affect people of all genders, ages, and ethnicities, and there is often no single cause.

Still, suicide can be a difficult and uncomfortable topic to discuss with friends or family members.

If a loved one brings up suicide, knowing how to handle the conversation can make it easier to offer the support that they need.

Help is out there

If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

If you’re calling on behalf of someone else, stay with them until help arrives. You may remove weapons or substances that can cause harm if you can do so safely.

If you are not in the same household, stay on the phone with them until help arrives.

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According to the NIMH, suicidal thoughts are symptoms of extreme distress and should not be dismissed or ignored.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, ask directly whether they are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, research shows that asking if someone is thinking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicidal ideation and may actually be beneficial.

Listen to your loved one without judgment, take their concerns seriously, and let them know that you care.

Asking follow-up questions can also help you determine the best way to provide support. Some examples include:

  • “Have you tried to harm yourself before?”
  • “Have you thought about how you would do it?”
  • “Do you have a plan?”
  • “What might make you act on these thoughts or feelings?”

Active listening techniques — such as asking questions, showing interest with nonverbal cues, and summarizing what the other person has said — can help them feel acknowledged and validated while discussing a sensitive topic.

Listening without interruption and using verbal encouragers, like “tell me more” or “what happened next?” can also help during emotionally painful or difficult conversations.

Also, avoid trying to disprove any negative statements by saying things like “things aren’t that bad” or “other people have it worse.”

Never describe suicide as:

  • selfish
  • stupid
  • cowardly or weak
  • a choice
  • a sin (or that the person is going to hell)
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Instead of arguing, losing your patience, or debating whether suicide is right or wrong, offer support to your loved one and make sure that they know they can open up to you.

Additionally, work with them to remove items like firearms, knives, drugs, or pills from their environment to help keep them safe.

It’s also important to encourage your loved one to get help and contact a doctor or therapist.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends speaking calmly and asking simple and direct questions, such as “Can I help you call your therapist?”

If they don’t have a therapist, you can also ask whether they need help finding one or if they would consider going to a hospital.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline also offers 24/7 confidential support for anyone in emotional distress. Encourage your loved one to call or text 988 or visit to chat with a trained crisis worker.

If a loved one expresses that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges that they are unsure how to navigate, working with them to develop a safety plan may be helpful.

A safety plan typically involves:

  • identifying any triggers or signs of suicidal thoughts
  • outlining some healthy coping strategies to try
  • listing friends or family members to contact
  • writing down emergency contacts, such as a therapist, psychiatrist, or crisis hotline
  • reducing access to lethal means, including firearms, knives, or pills

Creating a safety plan can help loved ones manage intense emotions and learn how to navigate a mental health crisis.

After connecting someone with the support and resources they need, it’s important to follow up to see how they’re doing.

In addition to providing reassurance that you’re there for them, this can also ensure that they know they can talk with you if they are experiencing a crisis.

According to a 2017 study, following up with individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts may reduce the perceived risk of suicidal behavior in the future.

Calling, sending a text message, or mailing a thoughtful postcard or letter to your loved one can help remind them that you care.

What to say to someone that says they are suicidal?

If someone expresses that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, remain present, listen, ask questions, and encourage them to get help. Helping them connect with ongoing support, such as a mental health professional, and developing a safety plan can also be beneficial.

Avoid invalidating their thoughts or feelings, debating whether suicide is right or wrong, or comparing their situation with others. These responses can minimize what someone may be experiencing and can contribute to feelings of guilt or shame.

What happens if you call the suicide helpline?

When you call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, you’ll hear a message saying that you’ve reached the Lifeline, followed by some hold music as they connect you to a trained crisis worker.

A crisis worker at the Lifeline network crisis center closest to you will answer and listen, provide support, and share any resources that may be helpful.

Do you call 911 if someone is suicidal?

Call 911 or a local emergency number if you think someone is in immediate danger or you can’t reach someone you trust. It may also be helpful to suggest contacting a local urgent psychiatric care center, if available in your area.

It’s also important to surround the person you’re concerned about with as much support from family and friends as possible. Crisis support networks, such as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, are available if a person is not in immediate danger.

What to do when someone is suicidal and refuses help?

Be sure to listen and provide support without judgment, which may encourage them to open up and get help. You can also provide them with resources, like the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, and offer to help them reach out to a therapist or mental health professional.

However, if you believe someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or a local psychiatric clinic. If available, you may be able to request a Crisis Intervention Team trained to help manage behavioral crisis situations.

If a loved one expresses that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s important to ask questions, listen without judgment, and offer support.

Making a safety plan and helping them connect with a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, or other resources, can also be beneficial. Also, follow up to see how they’re doing and remind your loved one that you care.