What you shouldn’t say to someone who is suicidal
Millions of individuals are affected by suicide, i.e. suicide claims more than 47,000 lives each year. It is the tenth leading cause of death. On average, 130 people die by suicide each day, and many more attempt it. It is estimated 1.3 million survive each year — including people like me. I am one in a million. I have survived suicide. Twice. And while I am #blessed with an amazing network of friends, family members, and peers, even I have received some cringeworthy advice. I’ve heard things which would make you recoil in shock and cause your head to spin. Why? Because suicide is complicated matter and it’s hard to know what to say. Finding the right words can be tough.
Of course, when someone you care about is hurting, it’s natural to want to help. Offering wisdom and advice is usually done empathetically, and with good intentions in mind. However, some words aren’t the best — especially if you don’t understand suicidal ideations and thoughts.
“Discovering that someone you know and care about wants to end their life is an unusual and uncomfortable situation,” a paper from Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health explains. “Whether this news comes as a shock or is something the person has said before, it is a pivotal moment in your relationship. What you say next can make a big difference.” It can change and even save their life. For that reason, you want to move forward thoughtfully and intentionally. The topic shouldn’t be avoided, but it should be handled with care.
“If you think that someone may be feeling suicidal, [you can and should] encourage them to talk about how they are feeling,” an article by Rethink Mental Illness explains. “You may feel uncomfortable talking about suicidal feelings. You may not know what to say.” But a little empathy goes a long way. Plus, in most cases, saying something is better than saying nothing. Asking them how they are doing may seem like the smallest thing, but it can mean everything to someone else.
Here are eight things you shouldn’t say to someone who’s suicidal — and what you can say instead.
What’s wrong with you?
Many of us are shocked to discover our loved ones have contemplated (or are contemplating) suicide. It’s a hard pill to swallow. The very mention of suicide is scary — and it hurts. But while, instinctually, you may want to ask “why” or say something like “what’s wrong with you” you should avoid using accusatory language and/or speaking in a judgemental tone.
What to say instead: That must be scary. I’m sorry you’ve been feeling so alone.
It’s not that bad.
Many suicidal individuals live good lives. Happy lives. They have great jobs, and loving families. But suicide does not discriminate. Stressors and mental illness knows no bounds, and when someone is feeling hopeless and helpless hearing their struggles aren’t “that bad” invalidates their experience and minimizes their pain.
What to say instead: That sounds awful. Would you like to tell me more about it?
But you have so much to live for.
Much like “it’s not that bad,” saying “but you have so much to live for” is dismissive. It also shows a profound lack of understanding — about mental illness and suicide —as the suicidal person may be experiencing pain which is so great that it overshadows all other aspects of their life.
What to say instead: You mean so much to me.
Be grateful for what you have.
Practicing gratitude is great. After all, doing so can help put life in perspective. But while gratitude can lift your mood, it can also make you feel worse — especially when “what you have” isn’t enough to “snap” you out of a depression or escape suicidal thoughts.
What to say instead: I’m sorry you’re struggling so much. Can I sit with you?
Cheer up, or man up.
Saying things like “man up,” “suck it up” and/or “cheer up” aren’t just dismissive, they are disrespectful and show a complete lack of understanding of how things like mental illness and suicidal thoughts work.
What to say instead: It must be so hard to feel so alone. What can I do to help?
You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?
While you may not mean it this way, referring to one’s suicidal thoughts as stupid implies they are stupid, reinforcing negative self-talk and further diminishing their self-esteem. It also perpetuates the notion that the suicidal individual is incompetent, leaving them feeling like they have failed one more time.
What to Say Instead: I’m worried about you. Do you want to talk about your feelings?
It will get better.
This sentiment may seem harmless — after all, you are encouraging the suicidal individual and instilling hope — but saying “it will get better” can be problematic because you don’t know how and/or if their situation will change. And if things don’t get better? This can make the suicidal person feel even more helpless, hopeless, and alone.
What to say instead: I’m here for you. You don’t have to go through this alone.
Suicide affects millions, regadless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, or creed. It also affects “strong” individuals, i.e. experiencing suicidal thoughts does not make one weak or mean they are not “fighting.” But saying “stay strong” implies the individual is not doing enough. It implies there is a defect of character or that the suicidal thoughts are somehow their fault.
What to say instead: There is hope. Let me help you.
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