How to Ask Someone If They Are Thinking About Suicide
By Katie Hurley, LCSW
It can feel scary and overwhelming when you see someone you love struggling. You may want to ignore the signs or walk away when you hear words and phrases that hint at suicide. But you can play a powerful role in connecting someone who is struggling to the professional support that will help them feel better.
There are a few important things you should know. Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon. Many teens and young adults feel sad and hopeless, and some think about suicide. That doesn’t mean they’ll act on those thoughts, but it also doesn’t mean they’re just trying to get attention. It means they need help—sometimes immediately.
The best things you can do are reach out to someone you are worried about and believe someone who tells you they need help.
Here is your step-by-step guide to doing it.
1. Pick a place and time to maximize privacy.
You want to respect their privacy and minimize the chance you will be interrupted. If this feels like an emergency, however, don’t wait and skip to step nine.
2. Start by expressing your concern and desire to help.
Share your specific concerns. Try phrases like:
“I’m worried because I noticed you [insert things you’ve noticed]. How can I help you through this?”
“It seems like you have been up and down lately. I’ve been there myself. Talking about it really helps.”
3. Ask them directly if they have thought about suicide.
You may worry that using the word “suicide” could put the idea in their head, but research shows the opposite is true. Asking someone if they are feeling suicidal can bring them relief, because someone finally acknowledges how badly they are feeling.
You can simply ask:
“Are you thinking about suicide?
“Have you had thoughts about suicide?
4. Keep the door open if they won’t talk to you.
If they are not comfortable talking to you, ask them if there is someone else they would feel comfortable talking to. If you’re not worried for their immediate safety, you can let them know you will always be available to talk and ask if it’s OK for you to check in again.
Consult with a professional or someone you trust—a family member, teacher, professor, therapist, or counselor, for example—about next steps.
5. Stay calm if they say yes.
Just because someone is having—or has had—thoughts of suicide, it does not necessarily mean they are in immediate danger. You can take some time to listen calmly to what they have to say and ask some follow-up questions to figure out how you can help.
6. Listen and validate their struggle.
You may feel the urge to tell your loved one about all the things they have going for them to try to cheer them up, but that will feel dismissive and make them less likely to open up to you. Here are some alternatives.
What not to say:
“But you’ve got so much going for you!”
“What would I do without you?”
“Think of what this would do to X, Y, Z person.”
What to say instead:
“What you’re feeling sounds really painful and difficult. I don’t have all the answers, but I am here to listen.”
“I’m so glad you told me this. Let’s keep talking.”
“I understand you are really struggling, and I am here to listen.”
7. Tell them you want to connect them to help.
If your friend, family member, or loved one is thinking of suicide, they need professional support and the most powerful thing you can do is connect them to it.
Here are some things you can say:
“Let’s connect you with someone who is trained to help you, like a school counselor or therapist.”
“I know there are hotlines with trained counselors you can talk to in confidence. Would you like me to stay with you while you text one?”
8. Don’t promise to keep what they tell you a secret.
If someone is thinking of suicide, they need professional support. It isn’t something you can keep secret. It is possible that they could be upset with you in the short term, but you need to do what’s best for them in the long run.
9. Get immediate help if they are unsafe.
If your loved one appears to be in immediate distress—they may tell you, but they also may take a more indirect route, like a social media post—you can say: “I am really worried that you are not safe right now, and I want to connect you to someone who can help you stay safe.” Then:
- Help them get in touch with their therapist if they have one.
- Offer to text or call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline together.
- Call or text 988 yourself if the person is unwilling to.
- Drive them to the emergency room.
- Call 911 if there is an immediate risk of harm and tell the operator you need support for a mental health crisis.
- Stay with them until they are connected to help.
10. Take care of yourself.
It can feel overwhelming to help someone struggling with suicidal feelings. Be sure to take care of yourself by talking to someone you trust or seeking your own support from a therapist. You’ve been a really good support to someone else, so now offer that same care to yourself.