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October 05, 2021

Fear a loved one is having suicidal thoughts? Here's how to talk about it

Be direct, but bring up the subject without judgment, experts advise

Mental Health Suicide
Suicide Prevention Talk Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

The Mayo Clinic reports that attempted suicide is more frequent among women, but men are more likely than women to complete suicide.

The reasons for suicidal thoughts are complex and varied, but health experts say they generally result from the feeling that a person can't cope with what appears to be an overwhelming life situation. A person who is in the middle of a crisis may feel like suicide is the only way out. 

Reaching out and connecting with loved ones who appear to be experiencing mental health struggles could save their lives. But what's the best way to broach the subject and show concern?

Choose the time and location carefully, mental health experts say. You and your loved one should be calm and have time for a lengthy conversation. Pick a private location where you are less likely to be interrupted. Their own homes might make loved ones feel the most comfortable, but going for a long walk or drive also might provide a good opportunity to talk. 

Once you have the time to talk, try to broach your concerns with some of these conversation starters from BeyondBlue, the Mayo Clinic and Movember:

•"You don't seem yourself." Let your loved one know that you are not upset, just concerned.
•"I've had a terrible week, how was yours?" Sometimes sharing your own troubles can help people feel more comfortable sharing their own.
•"Do you ever feel like just giving up?" Sometimes when a person is feeling hopeless, it helps to know that others might be feeling the same way.
•"Are you thinking of hurting yourself?" While this may seem too direct, experts say that asking about suicidal thoughts won't push people to act on those feelings. Instead, it may encourage them to open up.
Additionally, experts recommend encouraging loved ones to do things that may help them feel better, like eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep. 

If a friend or family member doesn't seem ready to talk, don't force the issue, experts say. Rather, let the person know that you are there at any time, and make definite plans to spend time together soon.

The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention emphasizes the importance of not minimizing your loved one's problems. Don't try to give advice. Just listening will let the person know you are there.

Ask directly about suicide, but do it without any judgment, experts advise. Let the person know that you care. One conversation could save a life.

Keep checking in. If you grow really concerned, don't be afraid to seek professional help on the person' behalf.

Recognizing risk factors

The Mayo Clinic reports that while attempted suicide is more frequent among women, men are more likely than women to complete suicide.

Risk factors for suicide include having attempted suicide before, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, isolation and loneliness. A stressful life event, such as the loss of a loved one, a breakup or financial problems, also can lead to suicidal thoughts.

So can having a substance abuse problem or a psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder.

Some medications, including antidepressants, antipsychotic medications and mood stabilizers, can cause some people to experience suicidal feelings, particularly people under age 25. Chronic pain or diseases also are risk factors for suicidal thoughts. 

For children and teenagers, suicidal thoughts may arise when they are dealing with bullying, abuse or if they are uncertain of their sexual orientation.

Members of the LGBTQ community may experience suicidal thoughts if they have an unsupportive family or experience a hostile environment. 

Warning signs of suicidal feelings include talking about suicide, feeling hopeless, experiencing unbearable pain or believing they are a burden to others. People considering suicide also might isolate from loved ones and activities they used to enjoy, sleep more or less, become more aggressive or increase their use of alcohol or drugs.

Movember, a charity that focuses on improving men's health, offers a step-by-step guide to help male friends who show signs of suicidal thoughts and other important resources.

Prior to 2020, suicide was one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States. The arrival of COVID-19 bumped it off the list. Suicides declined by more than 5%, dropping to 44,834 in 2020 from 47,511 in 2019. Still, experts are concerned that suicide might have increased in certain communities, especially communities of color.

Never leave your loved one alone during a suicidal crisis, experts urge. Remove any potentially lethal items from their home and encourage them to call a suicide hotline number. Or call it for them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

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