Things not to say to someone who opens up to you about having suicidal thoughts

Our loved ones mean the world to us and we all want only the best for them. Knowing that a loved one is struggling with mental health issues isn’t easy. It can be heartbreaking when a friend or a loved one expresses the wish to die or opens up about having suicidal thoughts. 

Mere mention of the word ‘suicide’ can be anxiety provoking. It can cause extreme feelings of helplessness, worry and stress. Conversations as such bring us in a state of panic. We want to take away their pain and for the same reason, we start to look for ways to instantly provide comfort and relief. Due to this, we often end up giving advice and telling the person having suicidal thoughts what they should or need to do. 

Has any of your friends, ever, told you that they wish to end their lives? What was the first thing you did? Did you tell them how much they mean to you? Or maybe, you told them how special they are and how the world would not have been the same if they weren’t here. Did you tell them how precious life is?

Though with the best of intentions, it may not always be the right thing to do.

I’ll start with busting the myth around talking about suicide. No, talking about suicide neither increases the chances nor does it provoke a person to take a step in the direction. In reality, it lessens the isolation that the person with suicidal thoughts must be feeling, provided we respond in the right manner. It lightens the burden and allows the person with suicidal thoughts to open up about their feelings. We sometimes do not know how to approach this topic, show support and express our concern. It is crucial to choose the right words because whatever we say can have a considerable impact on the person having suicidal thoughts. When someone opens up about having suicidal thoughts, as much as it is important to validate their feelings, it is also necessary to not give advice.

It’s important to know what to say but it’s more important to know what you do NOT say when someone opens up about having suicidal thoughts. Here is a list of things that you should NOT be saying to someone opening up to you about having suicidal thoughts –  

  1. “Don’t say that” Or “Don’t talk like that” 

The person who hears this can feel invalidated and belittled. As much as we don’t want our loved ones to feel that way, actually telling them to not feel suicidal is not going to help. The person having suicidal thoughts is looking to be understood, not invalidated. It’s already a good sign that they are opening up to you about their problem, so validate their thoughts and feelings. 

  1. “Don’t be so negative, be positive!” Or “Other people have bigger problems” Or “Focus on the positive and good things in life” Or “Look at the bright side” 

Please remember that it is not a competition and comparison of problems is not an option. It is true that people have huge problems but minimizing the reality of the person opening up to you is not a solution. Whatever they are facing is not tangible and feelings of helplessness, depression, facing abuse, or any mental health condition are not any easier. No two people are the same or face their problems in the same manner. Hence, telling them that other people have it worse and asking them to be positive will do more harm than good. 

  1. “Think of your family and friends who love you” Or “What will I do without you?” Or “See how much you mean to everyone” Or “Don’t be selfish, don’t just think for yourself” 

It’s a common misconception that leads to people viewing suicide as a selfish act. Many people think that people who idealize suicide do not care for their families and loved ones. But this is not true. Quite often, people with suicidal thoughts carry on to live just for their loved ones. Only for the sake of others, they keep themselves from taking such a big step and keep on prolonging their lives. Here, it is important for you to not be selfish and talk about yourself. Even though it’s true and with the best intention, you shouldn’t be telling them how sad your life will be without them. 

  1. “You’re just doing this for attention” Or “Don’t be so weak” Or “Stop playing the victim, learn to be stronger”

When a person shares with you their suicide ideations, what they are seeking is help, not attention. They are not playing the victim but are actually suffering from a mental health problem. They are trusting you when they open up to you. Try to show support rather than fuelling their feelings of loneliness.

  1. “Life is wonderful!” Or “You should be grateful that you are alive” 

When going through a mental health problem so severe that a person starts to have suicidal thoughts, it is crucial to understand that it is not possible for them to look at the positives. They are vulnerable and irrational. There will be no benefit if you try and show them how good life is as it will not bring any difference externally when the person is struggling to feel better internally. 

  1. “Distract yourself” Or “Stop thinking like that” Or “Do something interesting to get this off your mind”

Living with a mental health issue means living in a constantly miserable mindset. The person experiences negative thoughts and feelings persistently. No matter what they do, they fail to feel better, rather than constantly remain in low spirits. So, telling them to put their mind somewhere else is not going to work.

  1. “If you were serious, you would have already done that” Or “This is only temporary”

Feeling suicidal is like a trap. We might know that the problem is temporary but the one going through it feels stuck and helpless. For them, there seems no way out. Claiming that the person is non-serious is very inconsiderate and can act as negative encouragement for the person having suicidal thoughts. Talking about having suicidal thoughts in itself is a serious cry for help and should always be taken seriously.

There’s no denying that it can be extremely upsetting to see someone you love, talking about considering suicide. The inability to handle such conversations can leave you with feelings of guilt or helplessness. So instead of offering advice and making suggestions, this is what you can do to ease the suffering of your loved one. 

  • Listen, without giving any advice or words of wisdom. Give them the space to open up and let their emotions out. Sometimes, even venting and letting one’s anger, frustration, sorrow out can be a great relief. It can feel cathartic and provide them comfort and ease.  
  • Be open and empathic. Show acceptance to what they are sharing without judging or labelling them. 
  • Validate their feelings. Be compassionate, patient and calm while listening to them. Acknowledge what they are feeling and saying, this might help them to process their thoughts and calm themselves down. 
  • Listen and speak with an open heart. Let them cry if they do and tell them that you are there for them. 

Just simply being there for the person struggling with suicidal thoughts, showing that you care and understanding them can be enough to ease their pain. Along with supporting your friend, it is also important to take care of yourself as such conversations can be emotionally taxing. Don’t beat yourself up. Know that you did your best with the information you had and also seek help for yourself, if needed!

By Arunika Sharma

References

https://choicespsychotherapy.net/5-things-not-to-say-to-someone-who-is-suicidal/
https://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/1139532/what-not-to-say-to-someone-suicidal/amp/
https://www.verywellmind.com/what-to-do-when-a-friend-is-suicidal-1065472

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