Help on Campus
How to Talk About Suicide
It can be scary to talk about suicide, and that’s okay. If you see behavior in a friend or peer that is concerning, if you just have a feeling that something is going on, or if they seem to be acting in an unusual way for them, have the conversation! Check out the Seize the Awkward website for more ideas on how to start the conversation and ask about suicidal thoughts.
#1 NOTICE the signs.
The following warning signs indicate someone who is at a high risk for suicide:
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves, or talking about wanting to hurt or kill themselves
- Looking for ways to kill themselves, such as seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means
- Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide, when out of the ordinary (this is often seen on social media)
This person needs help immediately. Help can be sought by immediately contacting the Counseling Center, calling a helpline (1-800-273-TALK), texting the Crisis Text Line (741741), or, if necessary, calling 911.
The following are warning signs that a person may be thinking about suicide:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Anxiety, agitation
- Unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time
- Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and society
- Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
- Dramatic mood changes
- Expressing having no reason to live, or no sense of purpose in life
- Expressing feeling trapped, like there is no way out
- Expressing hopelessness
- Giving away prized possessions, writing a will, seeking long term care for pets
The warning signs listed above are not comprehensive. It is important to talk to them, and ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide. If they say yes, follow the above steps to get help. If they say no, work with them to create a plan to get help for the issues causing the warning signs you have noticed.
#2 EXPRESS and explain why you are concerned.
“I’ve been noticing that you have been drinking more often, not coming out with our friend group anymore, and talking about feeling trapped.”
“I care about you, and I’m worried.”
#3 ASK DIRECTLY about suicidal thoughts.
“Are you thinking about suicide?”
This sounds scary to a lot of people, but it is a vital question. In addition to getting important information to pass on to someone who can help, asked correctly, this question shows that you are open to listening, and allows the person to feel safe.
HOW you ask matters!
- Ask directly, using the word suicide. “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” and “Are you thinking about doing something reckless?” are not asking the same thing.
- Ask calmly. If you become emotional while asking the question, this can indicate that their answering yes will upset you further. They may lie and say no to protect you.
- Ask openly, without judgment. Don’t imply that “no” is the only acceptable answer. Unhelpful ways to ask include, “you’re not thinking about suicide are you?” or “I know you would never, but I have to ask…are you thinking about SUICIDE??”
#4 OFFER help and resources.
If the person shares that they are thinking about suicide, show confidence that help is available and that the two of you can get help together. Share the support resources listed at the top of this page.
If they are not thinking about suicide, sharing resources can still be helpful to address the concerning behaviors you have observed.
DON’T agree to keep it a secret.
Never promise to keep suicidal thoughts or plans a secret. Explain that you care too much about them to keep this to yourself, and that you need to get help by telling someone. Reassure them that you will only tell the person you go to for help, but will not tell other friends and peers.
DON’T try to talk the person out of suicide.
Trying to talk them out of it is not your job, and you are not trained in how to help a suicidal person find other options. Your job is to get the person to help, so they can be connected with someone who is trained in helping a suicidal person find other options.
DON’T show judgement.
It is not helpful to lecture about the value of a human life or to debate the morality of suicide. While you may mean well, this is similar to trying to talk someone out of suicide. It’s not your job and you are not trained to do it. Your job is to show confidence that you can get help together, and connect them to someone who is trained in helping them find other solutions.
DON’T put your safety in danger.
Your safety is important! If a weapon is present, or if the person threatens you, or if for any reason you feel unsafe, get out of the situation and call for help immediately.
#5 FOLLOW UP with them.
Be sure to follow up with them after a few days to let them know that you still care about them and to help them know that you are there if they need you. They may be afraid that you don’t want to be friends with them after knowing about their suicidal thoughts. If they were suicidal, make sure they connected with help. Every conversation that you have with them doesn’t need to be about their crisis, but this way they know you are there if they need them.
Suicide Myths and Facts
Fact: Everyone can help prevent suicide. Helpful things that you can do for a person thinking about suicide include listening to them, offering non- judgmental support, offering resources, and helping them connect to a mental health professional.
Fact: Talking about suicide will not put the idea into someone’s head. Talking about the facts of suicide is an important way to reduce the stigma that surrounds suicide. Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide (in a calm, non-judgmental manner) shows the person that it is safe to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings.
Fact: Talking about or threatening suicide is one of the most dangerous warning signs. A person talking about suicide should always be taken seriously.
Fact: Most people who die by suicide show definite warning signs. Many people are not aware of what the warning signs of suicide are, and so did not recognize them. This is no one’s fault, and highlights the importance of learning the warning signs of suicide, so that you are able to recognize when help is needed.
Fact: Suicide is the result of a process that includes many factors. Not everyone who has a mental illness will have suicidal thoughts, and not everyone with suicidal thoughts has a mental illness.
Fact: Suicide is never caused by one person or one thing. Suicide is a process that involves many factors. It is important to learn the warning signs, and to get help for someone in a suicidal crisis, but in the end, only that person can make the decision whether to live or die.
Fact: Suicide is seen by desperate people as a way to escape intolerable pain. It’s not about wanting to die, it’s about not wanting to feel intolerable pain. Often, if suicidal people can be shown other ways to solve their problems and escape their pain, they are no longer suicidal.