A Guide to Helping Your Friends Open Up About Suicide
By Sophia, an 18-year-old Teen Link volunteer phone worker
When You’re Worried About a Friend…
If you think your friend is contemplating suicide, it is crucial that you talk to them about it directly. It can feel really uncomfortable, bringing up such an intense subject, but if you’re right about your friend having suicidal thoughts then starting a conversation and asking them directly could save their life. Even if you’re wrong, just the fact that you were worried to this extent probably means there’s something going on with them that is worth sitting down and talking through.
Warning Signs and Risk Factors to Watch Out for…
If you’re uncertain about whether your friend is thinking suicidal thoughts, or just want to clearly articulate your concerns to them, it can be helpful to know some of the warning signs of suicide.
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness, despair, or lack of purpose
- Talking or posting about suicide, either in a serious or joking manner
- Withdrawing from friends, family, schoolwork, and hobbies
- Increased recklessness or substance use
- Sleeping a lot more or a lot less
- Giving away personal possessions
- Drastic change in appearance or personal hygiene
- Expressing feelings of guilt, shame, or being a burden on others
- Seeing a sudden, noticeable positive change in mood, and even expression of joy or relief after a long period of sadness. Although feeling elated in relation to suicidal thoughts sounds illogical, this happiness stems from a sense of regained power or control and relief about having a plan to end pain.
Warning signs indicate that someone is considering or planning a suicide. There are also risk factors, which are personal characteristics that increase the likelihood that someone will attempt suicide.
- Mental or physical health conditions
- Family history of suicide
- Loss of a person or a relationship
- Lack of a support network
- Financial or employment loss
- Substance misuse
- History of trauma
- Prolonged stress—such as from bullying, financial distress, or familial pressure
- Stressful life events like a divorce, major move, or serious injury
- Easy access to lethal means, like a gun or drugs
Preparing to Talk to Them…
Before you connect with your friend, it may be helpful to inform yourself about suicide—with resources like the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, NAMI, or AFSP—so you can have a more knowledgeable conversation. You don’t want to sound detached or like you’re reciting facts from a textbook—but gaining a greater understanding of mental health issues will help you approach the situation in a more understanding way. You can also research ideas for further resources and treatment before initiating the conversation. As well, you should be sure to already brainstorm potential trusted adults you and your friend could turn to. If your friend confides that they need help, you want to be able to support them in forming an action plan.
Once you feel informed, you can decide how you want to launch the conversation. In your head—or on the phone with a Teen Link volunteer—you can also run through potential possibilities for how the talk could play out, so you’re prepared for a variety of responses.
When You’re Having the Conversation…
First, find a safe, confidential place where you can have a long and uninterrupted conversation—in person is ideal. Try to be specific about why you are concerned. Starting with “I” statements can help to make this a more meaningful exchange. You can lead into the conversation with something like this, “Thanks for meeting up with me. I’m feeling really worried about you and just wanted to check in. Recently, I’ve noticed that you’ve been giving away a lot of your stuff, you’ve stopped coming to soccer practice, and your Instagram story last night mentioned dying. Are you thinking about killing yourself?” It may feel uncomfortable but asking about suicide directly is the best way to get a direct answer.
If they say no, ask if they feel comfortable sharing what has been going on for them. Throughout the conversation, listen without minimizing their emotions or judging. Also, make sure to identify yourself as someone who cares about them and is willing to support them. If you show unprompted willingness to support them through hard times and they are actually considering suicide, they may feel empowered to approach you at a later time.
If they say yes, it’s important for you to assess their safety. Although it may feel uncomfortable, you should ask them if they have a suicide plan, how easily they can carry it out, how accessible their means are, and what timeframe they have in mind. This can inform you about how imminent the danger is, and if you need to immediately reach out to a help line or trusted adult.
Next, check if they have felt this way in the past, or if there is any history of suicidal ideation in their family—having a personal past attempt or a suicide in the family is a significant risk factor for suicide. Also ask if they have ever been in counselling or therapy, and if so, determine whether they would be willing to contact their counselor or therapist. You can use this as a jumping point to explore other resources as well, like reaching out to family, other friends, or a medical professional. It’s necessary that you make some sort of action plan, whether that be informing their parents or having them call Teen Link for more anonymous support.
- Teen Link
- Speak to a trained teen volunteer based in Washington who can provide emotional support and connection to mental health resources; 1-866-TEENLINK [833-6546]
- Crisis Connections
- Speak with a trained counselor from the overarching organization that Teen Link is a part of. Crisis Connections operates this anonymous, confidential 24/7 crisis line for King County, as well as other programs (like Teen Link) that operate throughout Washington State; 866-427-4747
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is now the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States; call or text 988
- Crisis Text Line
- Text the word HOME to this line to text with a crisis counselor, available 24/7; 741741
- The Trevor Project
- Speak to trained counselors 24/7 with this line specifically meant to support LGBTQ+ youth in crisis or thinking about suicide; 1-866-488-7386
You can contact any of the lines above for personalized support, or explore the websites associated with these organizations for information and resources.
More Ways to Support Your Friend…
In addition to checking their safety and discussing resources, it’s important that you provide emotional support. Tell your friend that it’s ok to cry or show whatever emotion they are feeling. And validate whatever they are feeling. Let them know how much you care about them and how much you love having them in your life—not to guilt them but to show how much you appreciate them.
Don’t make a false promise or fall back on a cliché, impersonal response—like, “Everything happens for a reason.” It could ring empty and possibly make your friend feel more isolated. Also recognize that suicide is often not about someone wanting to die but rather wishing for their pain to end. Prompt your friend to tell you what it is that’s overwhelming them and see if you can rationalize some solution other than dying.
Next, don’t minimize what they’re feeling. Validate how difficult and painful this must be for them and let them know that they don’t have to go through this alone because you’re there to support them and professional help is also available. Use this as an opportunity to explore their ambivalence about dying. You can ask them about their reasons for living and their reasons for dying. It’s sometimes helpful to start with the reasons they’re feeling like they want to die, and finish with the reasons that are keeping them going, such as people or pets who count on them and love them, to finish on a positive note. Listen to both without judgment and try to help them focus more on the reasons for living. The fact that they are still alive and openly having this conversation with you signifies that a part of them wants to live.
When your exchange ends, a trusted adult needs to be notified, because your friend is in danger of harming themselves and professional help is vital to helping them through this. Ideally, they would reach out to the adult themselves, but if they refuse then you must—even if that means betraying your friend’s confidence. Throughout this stressful process, Teen Link is here to offer support and walk you through getting help for your friend, as well as ensuring that you feel supported and mentally well.
Again, if you are or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are free, 24/7 services that can help.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is now the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988.
- Crisis Connections is a crisis line for people in physical, emotional, and financial crisis—call 1-866-427-4747.
- Trevor Project Lifeline is the only nationwide, around-the-clock suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ youth—call 1-866-488-7386.
To learn more about Teen Link and how to become a volunteer, visit www.teenlink.org.