It is inevitable that at some point in your life, someone you know will think about committing suicide. Perhaps you are a concerned parent. A friend. A youth pastor. A church elder. A neighbor. A teacher. A sister, nephew, aunt, or son.
Do you know what to say—and just as important, what not to say—to a loved one who is struggling with suicidal thoughts?
Here are some all-too-common responses that can increase rather than decrease your loved one’s pain and suffering.
1. You don’t really mean that.
If a loved one says, “I wish I were dead” or “I can’t go on,” resist the temptation to downplay or discount their words. It’s time to tune in and gently but directly ask some difficult questions such as, “Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?”
We live in a world of shallowness and pretense. We’re forever saying, “Have a nice one,” while the real story remains hidden inside. When history looks back on us, they’ll marvel that we were the generation that smiled for a photo right before we jumped off the bridge. It’s time to get real.
2. Don’t talk that way.
Even if what your loved one says is painful to hear, your goal should be to learn how they are really doing. Be prepared to listen quietly. Bring a handkerchief for them, and make sure you have one for yourself, too. Remember, this isn’t about you or your comfort level; it is about them.
3. Everything is going to be okay.
If your loved one is depressed or thinking about suicide, things are, by definition, not okay. If the person begins to cry, let them. Resist the temptation to hush them or tell them that everything will be all right.
4. I promise not to tell anyone.
Never agree to keep someone’s suicide plans secret. As Christians, we are our brother’s (and our sister’s) keepers. Getting help for your loved one is the beginning of their road back to life and recovery.
5. Other people have it a lot worse than you do.
People who are depressed may already be struggling with guilt and its cousin, shame; telling them why they should be grateful only intensifies their struggles. Both shame and guilt can be powerful motivators to avoid sin and bad behavior, but when a loved one is ruminating on a particular event that causes shame or guilt and is not moving forward, such thoughts can be deadly.
Piling it on is hurtful, not helpful.
6. You need to pray more (or have more quiet time, or read the Bible more).
If your loved one is depressed, they may have a difficult time praying or concentrating. Actually, prayer and concentration can be difficult in the best of times. Our culture goes a million miles a second. Instead of telling them to pray more, ask if it would be okay for you to pray with them.
And instead of some vague promise to pray in the future, do it now.
7. Look at the bright side.
Those who are depressed are often pointed toward the hopeful lines in Scripture, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the Bible also includes sections expressly reserved for the depressed. Consider the following verses from the Psalms in the poetic King James Version: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint . . . thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15).
Likewise, Psalm 88 is a prayer uttered by the depressed, for the depressed. Allowing your friend to voice their pain and suffering can open a connection between them and Christ, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3, NLT).
Where the Rubber Hits the Tarmac
I recently was flying home on a small commuter jet with two seats on either side of the aisle. I was by the window. A mother sat next to me, and her two sons sat across the aisle. She wanted to talk, so I listened. Her life was wrapped up in the athletic success of her sons, ages ten and thirteen. They flew constantly to events, training camps, and practice sessions.
When we were nearly home, she asked what I was working on. I told her that I was writing a book about suicide.
She lowered her voice. “Just last week, my thirteen-year-old had told me that he didn’t want to live anymore.“
“How did you respond?” I questioned.
“I told him not to say that. Look at all the opportunities you have that other children don’t. Look at all your parents are doing for you,” she continued. This mother did not intend harm to her children. Nonetheless, her response is an example of what not to say to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. We can learn just as much from bad examples as good ones.
As an ER doctor, I rehearsed emergency scenarios. When a life-or-death situation presented itself, I knew the drill. I had done my thinking in advance. I was prepared to act.
Suicide is, by definition, an emergency. How you respond can be a matter of life or death.
There’s an old proverb in medicine that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Suicide is the one disease for which prevention is the only cure.
Jesus told his followers that he came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. It’s time for you and me to get that message out to those who need it the most.
Take the first step: put the National Prevention Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255) in your phone right now and be prepared to share it.
To request a list of essential questions to ask any loved one who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Lorenzo Antonucc
Dr. Matthew Sleeth, the executive director of Blessed Earth, was recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life In a Culture of Suicide. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, RELEVANT magazine, CNN, and Christianity Today. For a more in-depth parenting guide on starting and continuing the suicide conversation, email email@example.com.