When someone you care about has attempted suicide, you can experience a complex web of tangled and conflicting emotions, from sadness and fear to anger. You also want to help your loved one, but you might be feeling lost about how to do so. These are normal and understandable responses, and there are ways you can be supportive. Learn about what to say (and what not to say) to someone who tried to commit suicide.
What to Say to Someone Who Attempted Suicide
When struggling with suicidal thoughts, a person really needs unconditional love and support. Therefore, you want to use words that convey your care. You might also want to convey that you offer a safe space for them to talk about the issues of mental illness and thoughts of suicide. You can use any or all of the following statements.
"I'm so happy you are still with us."
A statement such as this shows them that they are valued and wanted. A deep sense of loneliness is often a part of depression. Though it may seem to you like that person isn't alone because they have so many people in their lives who care about them, their internal experience of isolation is very real to them and coincides with their depression.
"I can only imagine how much you have been struggling."
This type of statement tells the person you are empathizing with them, but not claiming to completely understand their experience. After all, you can't ever fully know what anyone is feeling. Moreover, someone who has attempted suicide has been experiencing a darkness in their soul so deep that suicide felt to them like the only way out of the pain.
"You can talk to me about your thoughts or depression; I won't judge you."
These words of comfort tell the person that you are a safe space. This is very important given the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the taboo of talking about suicide. Openly discussing these issues with your loved one is the first big step on their road to recovery; and they won't feel as alone when you voice your supoort to them.
"Are you having thoughts of suicide right now?"
Asking someone directly if they are having suicidal thoughts is very important. First, it shows that you have an open door that welcomes the conversation. Second, your loved one disclosing their thoughts to family can lead to supportive responses, in turn leading to less severe depressive symptoms. If you are a friend and they open up to you first, that gets the communication ball rolling for them, and helps them prepare to talk with their family.
It is a myth that asking someone about suicide will plant the idea in their head. If the person has never thought of it, they are not going to consider it just because it was mentioned. In fact, most people who truly do contemplate suicide are actually scared of their thoughts and really don't want to act on them. Asking them outright can be a relief to them, because they no longer have to deal with the thoughts on their own, and they can begin to get help.
"I too have dealt with depression before, but I can never fully understand what you are experiencing; I appreciate how hard it must be for you."
With this statement you are sharing your own experience, while keeping the focus on them. It shows them that they are not alone when it comes to mental illness. It also tells them that you understand how hard their experience is, while acknowledging that you cannot know exactly how they feel.
"I Love You."
Sometimes these three words can be difficult to say for various reasons, but people in general don't hear them often enough. The words "I love you" are more important than ever to someone who has recently tried to take their own life. They are appropriate and important to declare on a platonic level, parental level, or a romantic level. In order to make the statement genuine, you can elaborate by saying something like "I love you. I know I haven't told you that before or said it enough. I'm so glad you are still here."
What Not to Say to Someone Who Attempted Suicide
Knowing what not to say is as important as knowing what to say. You certainly mean well, however, saying the wrong thing can lead to inadvertently dismissing their pain or conveying to them that they can't openly talk to you. If you are struggling to find the right words, don't say something just for the sake of it. Sometimes just being with the person in silence is enough for them to know you care.
Given the complexity of mental illness, you want to avoid making declarative or cliché statements. The following are examples of things not to say.
"Call me if you ever need anything."
This is not really helpful because it is said so much in so many contexts, so it can sound disingenuous. Moreover, those struggling with emotional pain are not likely to call someone of their own volition. It would be best to take the initiative and do something that would show support, such as dropping off homemade food or helping them with a chore.
"You have so much to live for."
Remember that you cannot really know what it is like to be in the person's shoes, and saying something like this dismisses their pain.
"What were you thinking?"
A question such as this implies that they did something wrong or stupid. They are struggling deeply, to the point where leaving this world felt like the only solution for them.
"Nothing is ever that bad."
Again, you don't know their full experience. There doesn't have to be a reason for someone to experience depression. Sometimes people suffer depression due to the chemistry in their brain; and the depression can be severe enough for a person to experience a very deep and scary darkness.
"Don't ever scare us like that again."
Remember, you are trying to be there for your loved one, and when you're speaking to them after their suicide attempt, your own feelings shouldn't be the focus of the conversation. Such a statement on its own tells the person that they cannot come to you without being judged.
You are certainly not expected to know all the right things to say or do; you can always consult with mental health professionals.
For instance, contact a mental health agency in your area if you are worried about a friend or family member; ask to speak with a counselor for a consultation. If you are a college student and are worried about a fellow student, you can contact the counseling center on your campus and consult with a therapist on how best to help your friend.
One very invaluable resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can call 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are available to help someone who is dealing with thoughts of suicide, or someone who is worried about a person who might be suicidal.
Seek Support Yourself
You are going to be most helpful to your loved one if you also get support yourself. Seek professional counseling, or lean on your family and friends, to help you cope with the mix of emotions that you're feeling. Know that you are not at fault for your loved one's struggles, and that you cannot watch over them every minute of every day. Furthermore, if you are struggling to understand depression or suicidality, a counselor or support group are informative resources.
Be a Safe Haven
Life is hard; and those with mental illness have additional hurdles to overcome. Simply being there for your loved one in an unconditional and nonjudgmental manner is a tremendous refuge that you can provide them during their time of need.