How to approach someone and ask if they’re thinking about suicide – taking the first steps in a difficult conversation…

Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide is something a lot of us just don’t want to do. I get it.

We’ve made great strides in talking about mental health and suicide. We now have a World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) and in 2021 there was a BBC documentary about suicide presented by Roman Kemp where he talked about his own suicidal feelings, something that probably would never have happened 20 or 30 years ago.

But there’s still some way to go and the idea of asking someone if they are thinking of taking their own life…it’s just plain scary for a lot of people.

There’s a fear that we’ll somehow offend the person. Or, that they’ll say yes and we won’t know what to do next. Or that we might ‘plant a thought’ if it wasn’t there before.

But, if you’re concerned that someone you know is experiencing poor mental health and you think they might be considering suicide, that is a potential crisis and you need to take action to try and help them.

Talking about suicide can save lives

How to have a conversation about suicide
Talking about suicide won’t encourage someone to take their life or
increase the risk – it actually helps.

Openly talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings saves lives.

It’s a myth that everyone considering suicide actually want to die. Often, they’re just looking for a way to stop the pain they’re experiencing. They want to find an escape.

Someone asking directly if things are so bad that they are thinking about suicide, could just be the intervention they need to begin opening up and seeking help.

So, if there’s any doubt that they’re thinking about suicide, there’s no doubt. Talk to them. Ask directly & use the word suicide.

Talking to people about suicide is something that we cover in the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course.

In MHFA, we use the mnemonic ALGEE as a toolkit for supporting people experiencing mental ill health. The first A has three parts to it Approach, Assess for crisis and Assist through the crisis.

Here, we’ll talk about the Approach element for someone you think may be in a suicide crisis.

How to approach someone about suicide - mental health first aid training
The first A in the ALGEE mnemonic of Mental Health First Aid
training is all about the approach,

Approaching someone about suicide

Firstly, remember this is all about them, not you, and you want to create safety and trust so they can speak openly.

So, put some thought into how you will do that with this specific individual.

Where will be a good place that they will feel comfortable to talk? Some really good conversations happen in the car or while out walking. Or while you’re doing something besides just talking – working on a project, for example. It can feel easier to open up when you’re shoulder to shoulder, rather than face to face.

You can create trust by being non-judgmental. Allow them to speak without interrupting. Let them know this is a safe space to talk.

How to talk to someone about suicide
Being shoulder to shoulder, while walking or driving, can
encourage people to open up.

Ask directly about suicidal thoughts

Tell them what thoughts and behaviours you’re seen that you’re concerned about. And, the big one, ask directly: ‘Are you having thoughts about suicide?’

It can actually be a great relief to someone to be asked that question. It gives them permission to talk about it. It is a game-changer of a question!

If the answer is no, then there’s no harm done. They may not be telling the truth and not ready to speak about it yet, but now at least they know that when they are, you’re there to listen. And, if they’re not suicidal, you’ll probably have a good conversation about the reasons behind why you thought they might be.

But what if they say yes? People are generally more worried about hearing that answer than anything else.

However, the MHFA training, using the ALGEE mnemonic, gives you a plan of how to respond appropriately to help a person or guide them into other support where relevant.

It’s too much detail to go into here, but if you contact me, I’m always happy to have a chat about it or visit the MHFA training page if you’d like to learn more about the course.

Talking to men about suicide

Of those who die by suicide, the vast majority are male – 74%. And, the highest rate of suicide is within those aged 45 – 59.

So, if you have a man in your life that you’re concerned about, please do start that conversation. Create that space of safety and trust. Listen non-judgmentally. Don’t interrupt. Ask directly.

Encouraging men to talk about mental health
Men Do Lunch Day encourages you to invite a man out for lunch and
have a conversation. Let’s get men talking.

On November 14 we hold an annual Men Do Lunch Day to encourage people to take a man in their life out for lunch – whether it’s your husband, father, brother, friend, colleague, best mate – and to just start talking. See what comes out.

If the conversation takes a turn towards mental health and suicide, stay with it. Let them talk. Don’t be afraid to ask about it.

We need more men to talk more. If you want to know more about that event and how to get involved, again just contact me here.

Go well & stay wonky.