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How to Talk About Suicide

When a person takes his or her own life, it is a tragedy that can generate many complex emotions in those left behind. The average person is not trained in how to discuss suicide, and discussing suicide with others, especially young people, can lead to much anxiety and uncertainty. A common fear is that talking about suicide with young people will make them more likely to suicide. While there is no evidence that this is true, there are ways to discuss this topic that are both helpful and unhelpful.

1. Do not blame the person who died. It is normal to feel angry when a loved takes their own life. After all, this act often leaves much emotional wreckage behind. However, referring to suicide as a cowardly or selfish act is deeply unhelpful in that it stigmatises those with mental health issues, minimises emotional pain, and makes it less likely that people with suicidal thoughts and feelings will seek help.

2. Do not blame anyone else, either. The reasons that a person takes their own life are complex. Those left behind often spend a lot of time seeking answers to many questions, especially wanting to know why. The truth is that we will never have a clear answer as to why someone makes this choice, even if they leave indications behind as to their thinking. The reason for this is that the thinking of someone who is severely suicidal is often distorted – that is, it makes sense to that person, but can seem unreasonable to those around them. In our search for the why, it can be easy to blame people close to the person who suicided – an ex-boyfriend or a friend who did something mean. However, pointing the finger at anyone else is often overly simplistic and it ignores the fact that, ultimately, the decision to take one’s own life rests solely with the person who does so. Blaming others is destructive and futile.

3. Normalise and validate any emotional response. Just about any emotion in response to suicide is normal. It is normal to feel sad, angry, guilty, or anxious. Rather than trying to cheer a bereaved person up, listen to them describe how they feel and communicate to them that their feelings are okay and understandable. It can be uncomfortable interacting with a grieving person, but it is okay to not know what to say.

4. Be direct when asking about suicidal thoughts. If you are concerned that someone close to you may be feeling suicidal, ask them about it directly. Ask the question: “Are you having thoughts about suicide?” If that person says yes, it is important to strike a balance between taking the person seriously while not blowing things out of proportion. It is not uncommon that people experiencing significant emotional distress have fleeting suicidal thoughts. However, only a professional can distinguish between this and serious suicidal intent. Urge a loved one with suicidal thoughts to contact a mental health professional. If you are seriously worried about someone, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for further advice.

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