It can be hard to think about suicide — much less talk about it. Many people shy away from the subject, finding it frightening, even impossible to understand. And suicide certainly can be hard to understand, since it’s not always clear why a person makes this choice.

But in general, suicide often isn’t just an impulsive act. To people who consider it, it might seem like the most logical solution.

Language matters

Suicide is preventable, but to prevent it, we must talk about it — and the way we talk about it matters.

This starts with the phrase “commit suicide.” Mental health advocates and other experts have pointed out that this wording contributes to stigma and fear and may prevent people from seeking help when in need. People “commit” crimes, but suicide isn’t a crime. Advocates suggest “die by suicide” as a better, more compassionate option.

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Keep reading to learn more about some of the complex factors that contribute to suicide. We’ll also offer guidance on how to help someone who might be considering suicide.

If you’ve never thought about taking your own life, you may find it difficult to understand why someone would consider dying this way.

Experts don’t even fully understand why some people do and others don’t, though a range of mental health issues and life circumstances can play a role.

The following mental health concerns can all increase someone’s risk of having suicidal thoughts:

While not everyone experiencing mental health issues will attempt or even consider suicide, deep emotional pain often plays a significant part in suicidal behavior and the risk of suicide.

But other factors can also contribute to suicide, including:

Facing more than one type of distress can sometimes increase suicide risk. For example, someone dealing with depression, financial difficulties due to job loss, and legal trouble could have a higher suicide risk than someone only dealing with one of these concerns.

It’s not always possible to tell if someone’s considering suicide. Experts agree that a number of warning signs can suggest a person might have suicide on their mind, but not everyone shows these signs.

It’s also important to keep in mind that simply thinking about suicide doesn’t automatically lead to an attempt. What’s more, these “warning signs” don’t always mean that someone’s contemplating suicide.

That being said, if you know someone who shows any of the following signs, it’s best to encourage them to talk with a therapist or other healthcare professional as soon as possible.

These signs include:

  • talking about death or violence
  • talking about dying or wanting to die
  • accessing weapons or things that could be used for suicide, such as large amounts of certain over-the-counter or prescription medications
  • rapid changes in mood
  • talking about feeling trapped, hopeless, worthless, or as if they’re burdening others
  • impulsive or harmful behavior, including substance misuse, reckless driving, or practicing extreme sports unsafely
  • withdrawal from friends, family, or social activities
  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • extreme anxiety or agitation
  • a calm or quiet mood, especially after agitated or emotional behavior

Even if they aren’t considering suicide, these signs may still suggest something serious is going on.

While it’s important to look at the whole picture and not assume these signs always indicate suicidality, it’s also best to take these signs seriously. If someone shows concerning signs or symptoms, check in on them and ask how they’re feeling.

You may worry that asking a loved one about suicide might increase the likelihood they’ll attempt it, or that bringing up the topic will put the idea in their head.

This myth is common, but it’s just that — a myth.

In fact, 2018 research suggests it can have the opposite effect.

Talking about suicide can help reduce thoughts of suicide and may also have a positive impact on mental health overall. And, since people considering suicide often feel alone, asking about suicide can let them know you care enough to offer support or help them access professional care.

It’s important, however, to ask in a helpful way. Be direct — and don’t be afraid to use the word “suicide.”

How to bring up suicide

  • Ask how they’re feeling. For example, “Are you thinking about suicide?” “Have you thought about hurting yourself before?” “Do you have weapons or a plan?”
  • Really listen to what they say. Even if what they’re going through doesn’t seem like a serious concern to you, acknowledge it by validating their feelings and offering empathy and support.
  • Tell them you care and encourage them to get help. “What you’re feeling sounds really painful and difficult. I’m worried about you, because you’re really important to me. Can I call your therapist for you or help you look for one?”
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Some people might view talking about suicide as nothing more than a plea for attention. But people considering suicide may have thought about it for some time. These thoughts come from a place of deep pain and it’s essential to take their feelings seriously.

Others might feel that suicide is a selfish act. And it’s understandable to feel this way, especially if you’ve lost a loved one to suicide. How could they do this, knowing the pain it would cause you?

However, this way of thinking can be a disservice to people considering suicide by minimizing their pain. This pain can become so difficult to cope with that contemplating even one more day seems unbearable.

People who arrive at the option of suicide may also believe they’ve become a burden to their loved ones. In their eyes, suicide may feel like a selfless act that will spare their loved ones from having to deal with them.

At the end of the day, it’s important to consider the perspective of the person struggling.

The urge to live is very human — but so is the desire to stop pain. Someone may see suicide as the only option to make the pain stop, though they may spend a lot of time questioning their decision, even agonizing over the pain others will feel.

You can’t control someone’s thoughts and actions, but your words and actions have more power than you think.

If you think someone you know is at risk for suicide, it’s better to take action and offer help that isn’t needed than worry about being wrong and do nothing when they truly need help.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Take warning signs or threats of suicide seriously. If they say anything that concerns you, talk with someone you trust, such as a friend or family member. Then get help. Urge them to call a suicide hotline. If you believe their life is in immediate danger, call 911. If involving the police, stay with the person throughout the encounter to help maintain a sense of calm.
  • Reserve judgement. Take care not to say anything that might seem judgmental or dismissive. Expressing shock or empty reassurances, such as “you’ll be fine,” may cause them to just shut down. Try asking instead what’s causing their suicidal feelings or how you might be able to help.
  • Offer support if you can. Tell them you’re available to talk, but know your limits. If you don’t think you can respond in a helpful way, don’t leave them on their own. Find someone who can stay with them and talk, such as another friend or family member, a therapist, a trusted teacher, or a peer support person.
  • Reassure them. Remind them of their value and express your opinion that things will improve, but emphasize the importance of seeking professional help.
  • Remove potentially harmful items. If they have access to weapons, medications, or other substances they could use to attempt suicide or overdose, take these away if you can.

You may not feel equipped to help someone in a crisis as well as you’d like, but beyond listening, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) try to help them on your own. They need urgent support from a trained professional.

These resources can help you get support and learn about next steps for someone in a crisis:

If you’re having thoughts of suicide and aren’t sure who to tell, call or text a suicide hotline right away. Most hotlines offer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained counselors will listen with compassion and offer guidance on helpful resources near you.