Is it Safe to Ask a Person if They Are Thinking About Suicide?

January 2, 2020

Because shame and embarrassment are often associated with suicide, myths and misinformation about suicide are always lurking in the shadows. One of the most persistent myths is that by talking about suicide with someone we care about, we will somehow validate and even encourage a suicide attempt. However, mental health experts stress that the best thing you can do for someone who is depressed or showing warning signs of suicide is to start a conversation. Suicide-related research conclusively shows that open conversations about suicide are unlikely to increase suicidal ideation, and may actually decrease it. If someone is thinking about suicide, and no one asks them about it, there may be no one with whom they feel safe raising the topic, say mental health experts. Not bringing the idea of suicide to light keeps it in the shadows and silent.

Before starting the conversation, it is helpful to know what the typical warning signs of suicide are. The American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit organization which advocates for suicide prevention, developed an easy way to remember the warning signs of suicide with this mnemonic: IS PATH WARM?

Ideation (Threatening to hurt or kill self; looking for ways to die)
Substance Abuse (Increased or excessive substance use–alcohol or drugs)
Purposelessness (No reason for living; no sense of purpose in life)
Anxiety (Anxiety, agitation; unable to sleep)
Trapped (Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out; resistance to help)
Hopelessness (Hopelessness about the future)
Withdrawal (Withdrawing from friends, family and society; sleeping all the time)
Anger (Rage, uncontrolled anger; seeking revenge)
Recklessness (Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities)
Mood Changes (Dramatic mood changes)

Often, it is helpful to ease into the conversation by not using specific suicide terminology, but to open the door by discussing other possible warning signs, like an individual’s withdrawal from normal day-to-day activities, or uncharacteristic outbursts of anger, or changing sleep patterns.

If you are afraid you’ll say the wrong thing in a conversation about suicide, do a little research. A quick online search will provide you with advice from dozens of reliable sources about how to frame your questions.

Those who have suicidal thoughts are usually feeling isolated and terrified. Offering resources that can help may be the best comfort and reassurance you can offer a loved one who is thinking of taking their own life. Bring to the conversation a list of resources. A good place to start is with is the phone number for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741). There are many resources available here in the Chicago area, as well, including the Greater Chicago/Illinois Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (312) 890-2377 and the Illinois Suicide Prevention Resource Center website.

Starting a conversation about any sensitive subject can be difficult. But opening up about suicide is worth the effort.