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Talking About Suicide - The Conversation That Could End Up Saving a Life

Why is it so hard to talk about suicide? Starting the conversation with someone having suicidal thoughts is never easy, but it is important and could be lifesaving.

Scott Langenecker, PhD, a clinical neuroscientist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) and professor of psychology at University of Utah Health, and Mindy Schreiner, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry, have dedicated their time to studying suicide, and offer insight into how and when to start that challenging dialogue.

How to Talk to a Loved One About Suicide

Mindy Schreiner, PhD, works in research and focuses on affective disorders with specific focus on non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) and suicide in adolescents and young adults. When asked how talk to those you love about suicide, these were her recommendations:

  1. Open up the dialogue. Ask specifically and directly about mental health and suicide.
  2. Provide options for communication. Face-to-face conversation can be uncomfortable. Texting, email, and instant messaging can be very helpful ways for teens to feel more comfortable talking about uncomfortable things, such as suicide. This can also include suggesting options for alternative adults that they might feel more comfortable talking with. This might be another relative, coach, teacher, or counselor.
  3. Remain calm. It's understandably difficult to hear that your child might be having suicidal thoughts, but they are looking to you for help, support, and guidance in how to navigate this. Becoming visibly panicked or frightened can communicate the wrong message to teens. This could possibly lead them to feel that they have caused you to become upset, that they need to take it upon themselves to figure out their problems, or even that they need to help comfort you.
  4. Work together. Ask how you can help. If they aren't sure, you can make some suggestions about seeking therapy or obtaining other resources, such as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or SafeUT. They might even just want someone present with them.
  5. Alleviate isolation. Sometimes a reaction to learning about suicidal thoughts is to take away potential resources such as technology. In many cases, technology can be a lifeline—especially when considering outlets such as SafeUT. Connection to others in general is very important at this time, and parents can play a helpful role in facilitating more connection with friends and family.

When to Talk About Suicide

"Timing is everything," Langenecker says. But knowing when to have this conversation is even more important, and you should never rush it, nor bring it up at a time when it is only convenient for you.

"You may feel like when your kids seem down or upset, that's the time to ask the question," Langenecker says. "But that is the time when your kids are most likely to decline. Instead, ask when they're having a good day—when they're more talkative."

Always convey how you are feeling to your child/teen—parents do not do this enough. Langenecker says to tell them how you are personally feeling, because chances are their thoughts are different than what you might believe. Allow them to express how they are feeling and give them space to feel heard by you.

More important, your child's or teen's internal monologue might be telling them that they're not good enough, don't deserve help, or are a failure. Even though they are trying to help, parents can accidentally reinforce some of those cognitive distortions. This makes it even more important to allow children and adolescents to direct the conversation—don't ambush them or make them feel targeted.

Addressing Suicide: Questions to Ask

Here are some examples:

  • I've noticed you've had a couple of down days lately, can you let me know how you're feeling or what you're thinking about?
  • It seems like you've been struggling lately. Are you comfortable talking with me about what's going on?
  • Hey, I've experienced similar things that you might be feeling, and we can work together to find support and help for you.
  • Have you thought about how you might approach this differently?
  • What you are feeling sounds tough, but I, or someone else, can help you solve this problem—let's work together on this.
  • Have you felt this way before? What kind of things help you feel safe when you're feeling like this?

Often, children and teens will not want to discuss their feelings with their parents. If that is the case, encourage them to talk about it with a professional. If your child wants a private and anonymous conversation, the professional crisis workers at SafeUT can help at no cost or contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Langenecker's biggest advice for parents is to trust your gut. Most often, a parent's gut feeling is correct, and if you feel your child is more anxious or worried, you should ask yourself the hard question: "I wonder if there is a lot more going on beneath the surface with my kid that I don't know about?"

I'm Feeling Suicidal, What Do I Do?

Talk to someone. Know that it's okay not to be okay, but that you can get better, and that this is not the end. You are loved, you are not broken, and whenever you are ready, we are here for you.

Help is always available. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The SafeUT app provides a way to connect to a licensed counselor that is ready to listen to any type of crisis or concern. Help is immediate, confidential, and as easy as reaching for your phone and sending that first text.