September 14, 2018

How to Talk to our Loved Ones about Suicide.

There are three words we don’t say often enough—and I’m not talking about “I love you.”

In the six years I’ve spent wondering how—or if—I could have stopped my husband’s suicide, I’ve realized there was one question I didn’t ask often enough: Are you okay?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attempting to oversimplify a despairingly complex topic, nor am I blaming myself for my husband’s decision to throw himself in front of an oncoming train.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, I realized suicide prevention isn’t about hotlines or health care reform (although those topics should certainly be addressed). Suicide prevention is about knowing how to start a conversation with someone who is at risk.

Removing the stigma

I get it. It’s hard to talk about suicide.

But avoiding hard conversations will never save lives. In fact, advocates for mental health agree that the first step in abolishing the stigma surrounding mental illness is to talk about it.

Discussing these issues is the only way for us to realize that we’re all more alike than we are different. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four Americans experiences a mental health disorder every year. Additionally, nearly seven percent of Americans reported experiencing a major depressive episode in 2016 alone.

Even with numbers like these, those suffering may still feel incredibly alone—and hopelessly lost.

That’s why starting an open, candid conversation is the best way to help a loved one suffering from mental illness or considering suicide.

What to say

How do we start what could potentially be the most important conversation of our loved one’s life?

Well, we need stop thinking about it like that.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed at the idea of finding exactly the right words or offering the perfect advice. But, in most cases, what we say doesn’t really matter all that much. What does matter is that our friend understands we’re there to listen—with love and without judgment.

If you still don’t know what to say, try starting with this simple question: Are you okay?

As I’ve spoken to those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, I’ve realized that, sometimes, the best treatment is a genuine friend asking a genuine question of concern.

As you talk, keep your questions open-ended, nonjudgmental, and filled with love. Try asking:

>> Is there anything you want to tell me about what you’re thinking or feeling?
>> Is there anything I can do to help?
>> Would you like some company for a while?
>> Have you told your doctor how you’re feeling?
>> Do you know how much I love you?
>> Do you understand that depression is an illness, just like heart disease, and can be treated?
>> Will you let me help you get the help you deserve?

Your commitment of unconditional help and support should be just that—a commitment. For someone suffering from depression, trust can be difficult. That’s why it’s critical to follow through on the support you’ve promised.

If you ever feel ill-equipped to help, or are worried about your loved one’s immediate safety, don’t waste time wondering what to do—get them to an emergency room immediately.

Knowing the warning signs and risk factors for suicide can help you determine when to seek professional help.

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Kristi Hugstad

author: Kristi Hugstad

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