If someone feels suicidal, talking to someone who can listen and be supportive may be their first step towards getting help. They could talk to someone in their life. They could also talk to a professional such as a doctor or therapist, or a trained listener at a helpline. (See our information on talking treatments and helplines.)
If you feel able to listen, you could ask them about how they are feeling. It could help if you:
- Ask open questions. These are questions that invite someone to say more than 'yes' or 'no', such as 'How have you been feeling?' or 'What happened next?' There are more ideas for open questions on the Samaritans website.
- Give them time. You might feel anxious to hear their answers, but it helps if you let them take the time they need.
- Take them seriously. People who talk about suicide do sometimes act on their feelings — it's a common myth that they don't. It's best to assume that they are telling the truth about feeling suicidal.
- Try not to judge. You might feel shocked, upset or frightened, but it's important not to blame the person for how they are feeling. They may have taken a big step by telling you.
- Don't skirt around the topic. There is still a taboo around talking about suicide which can make it even harder for people experiencing these feelings to open up and feel understood. Direct questions about suicide like 'Are you having suicidal thoughts?' or 'Have you felt like you want to end your life?' can help someone talk about how they are feeling.
Not undermining their feelings and letting them know that you believe them and want to be there for them is really necessary as well.
|Why is it safe to ask if someone feels suicidal?
Asking someone if they feel suicidal or are planning to end their life may not feel like the right thing to do but in fact professionals do recommend asking direct questions about suicide. Some people worry that this might indirectly encourage the person who is feeling suicidal to act on their feelings, but in reality research has shown that speaking openly about suicide decreases the likelihood of the person acting on their feelings.
Asking simple, direct questions can encourage them to be honest about how they are feeling. Many people feel relieved and less isolated when they are asked.
You can find yourself tiptoeing around the subject because you’re scared of saying the wrong thing and you wish you could make everything better. I knew from my own experiences that being told: don’t say that, or you don’t mean that, doesn’t help. It can help just to say that you’re here and you’re sorry things are hard right now. You don’t have to have all the answers.
How can I offer emotional support?
You don't need any special training to show someone you care about them. Here are some things you can do to offer emotional support:
- Listen. Simply giving someone space to talk, and listening to how they’re feeling, can be really helpful in itself. If they're finding it difficult, let them know that you're there when they are ready.
- Stay calm. Even though it might be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed, try to stay calm. This will help your friend or family member to feel calmer too.
- Try not to make assumptions. Your perspective might be useful to your friend or family member, but try not to assume that you already know what may have caused their feelings, or what will help.
For more about how you could offer support, see our information on supporting someone else to seek help for a mental health problem.
Having these conversations can be hard so it's important to take care of yourself too. Our page on supporting yourself has some suggestions.
This information was published in January 2017. We will revise it in 2020.