Having a conversation about suicide

Two young men are standing facing forwards with speech bubbles above their heads representing a conversation about suicide.

T/W This article includes references to suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you are struggling with this, contact our Crisis Messenger 24 hours a day. You can also contact SamaritansCALM, or Papyrus, who specialise in supporting people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.  

Talking about suicide can seem overwhelming – for the person who is suicidal and for anyone who may be concerned about them – but it’s so important to open up that conversation. In asking about suicidal thoughts, we dispel the stigma and open up a safe space for young people to talk about suicide in an honest and open manner. We spoke to the experts at Papyrus to get their advice.

How to talk about suicide

Lots of people worry that asking and talking about suicide will make suicide more likely to happen, but this isn’t the case. By using the word suicide, you are telling someone that it’s ok to talk openly about their thoughts of suicide with you.

It is important that you try to stay calm, listen to and hear them, avoid judgement, don’t try to fix them but support them to tell their story. It can be useful to create a calm, safe space with no distractions, let them know that right now, they are all that matters. Take time to imagine what it’s like for that person, focus on their feelings and their experiences.

What questions should I ask about suicide?

  • Are you having thoughts of suicide?
  • Are you thinking about ending your life?
  • Does suicide feel like an option for you right now?

Asking a direct question that requires a yes or no answer can ensure that there is no confusion and that the person will understand you are asking them about suicide and nothing else.

What should I avoid asking about suicide?

  • Are you thinking about doing something stupid?
  • Are you thinking of hurting yourself?

These questions may dissuade someone from sharing their thoughts for fear of reprimand or judgement. In terms of hurting themselves, self-harm may be used as a coping mechanism to stay safe from suicide, so may cause confusion and shame. Regardless of our views of their situation, whatever they are feeling and thinking is making them feel like suicide is a real option for them and that’s what they need us to hear.

Phrases to use when talking to someone about suicide

  • “It sounds as though things are really hard at the moment. Can you tell me a bit more about what’s going on?”
  • “It’s hard and scary to talk about suicide but take your time and I will listen.”
  • “Have you made plans to end your life, if so, are you able to share with me what they are?”

Recent research has indicated that asking someone if they are experiencing thoughts of suicide can actually reduce the risk of them ending their life. Asking and determining if that person is feeling suicidal gives you the opportunity to explore those feelings further and support them to stay safe.

Spotting the signs of someone who may be having suicidal thoughts

Thoughts of suicide can affect anyone at any time. It may seem that the person experiencing suicidal thoughts has every thing to live for, it doesn’t matter, it’s about their perception of their life right now which links to their thoughts of suicide.

There isn’t exhaustive list of ‘invitations’ (signs) but there may be some noticeable signs.

Signs that someone may be thinking about suicide

  • Loss of interest/withdrawal, giving away possessions
  • Changes in behaviour – lighter in mood, depressive episodes, withdrawn
  • Physical indicators – weight loss, lack of interest in appearance
  • Expressing thoughts or feelings – Hopelessness, sadness, guilt, worthlessness
  • There may be words or language being used, such as, “I can’t take it anymore”, “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I’m done”

These could all be indicators that someone is experiencing thoughts of suicide. There may also be no signs as the person who is experiencing thoughts of suicide may be working really hard to hide their thoughts to protect their loved ones, or for fear of their reaction.

The most important thing to do when working out if someone is struggling with thoughts of suicide is to ask.

Reducing the stigma around seeking help for suicide

The dictionary meaning of stigma states that it is ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person’. The stigma around suicide originated from the term ‘committed suicide’. To commit is often a word associated with crime.

Before the Suicide Act 1961, suicide was considered a crime. Any person trying to die by suicide could be prosecuted and even imprisoned. Thankfully, support for mental health has improved and it is no longer a crime, but yet the stigma still remains, both for the person having suicidal thoughts and those affected by the suicidal thoughts of someone they know.

Changing the language we use around suicide

By changing the language, we use around suicide, we can be part of the movement to reduce suicide stigma.

Avoid phrases such as:

  • ‘Committed suicide’
  • ‘Attempted suicide’
  • ‘Failed suicide attempt’

These can have really negative connotations and can lead to a negativity around suicidal discussion.

Change these phrases to:

  • ‘Died by suicide’
  • ‘Tried to end their life by suicide’
  • ‘Ended their life’

This reduces the stigma and uneasiness around suicide. This can be really important for anyone affected by the death of someone by suicide, it allows them the opportunity to talk about the person who died without fear of judgement.

Read The Mix’s guide to coping with suicidal thoughts.


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For any further information around the prevention of suicide please go to Papyrus-uk.org. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or are supporting a person who is experiencing thoughts of suicide please call HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141, advisers are waiting to support you from 9am to midnight every day.

Next Steps

  • C.A.L.M (campaign against living miserably) is a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide. They have lots of information on their website and run a helpline from five to midnight. 0800 58 58 58
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 116 123
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 116 123
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 07-Sep-2021

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