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A Better Way to Talk About Suicide

September 7th, 2022


In 2020, suicide was among the nine top leading causes of death for Americans ages 10-64. Suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death among early adolescents, ages 10-14, and young adults ages 25-34 (CDC, 2022). Despite the frequency of death by suicide, mental illness, which is frequently, but not always associated with suicide, and suicide itself is highly stigmatized (CDC, 2018, Fuller, 2020).

Broadly speaking, stigma is an attitude of shame attributed to someone or something (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) Stigma frequently results in discrimination and can lead to avoidance of help-seeking, isolation/withdrawal, judgment, secrecy, embarrassment, and shame for those experiencing suicidal thinking or survivors of suicide attempts (Carpiniello & Pinna, 2017; Olson, n.d.). The stigma associated with suicide contributes to and is impacted by a variety of myths about suicide and is apparent in the language with which people use to talk about suicide.

The following article is intended to provide education about suicide including how to talk about suicide and mental health and how to access help and resources for yourself or help others struggling with suicidal thinking.

Common myths associated with suicide

Common myths associated with suicide:

  1. “People attempt suicide because they want to die.”

People attempt suicide for a variety of reasons, but the overwhelming majority of research shows that most people do not attempt suicide because they want to die. Some reasons people do attempt suicide include, but are not limited to:

  • To end intense and enduring emotional pain and/or hopelessness
  • To end chronic physical pain
  • Escape what seems to be an impossible situation

(Carpiniello & Pinna, 2017; Fuller, 2020)

  1. “People attempt suicide because they have mental illnesses.”

While many people who attempt or die by suicide are struggling with mental illness, other stressors such as significant losses can also lead someone to die by suicide (Fuller, 2020). The CDC (2018) estimated 54% of those who died by suicide did not have a mental illness at the time of their death and Carpiniello & Pinna (2017) similarly determined a significant portion of those who die by suicide do not meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis.

  1. “Suicide happens suddenly and without warning.”

There are multiple warning signs associated with suicide including:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Hopelessness/purposelessness
  • Increase in alcohol/substance use
  • Feeling burdensome
  • Increase in anxiety - especially agitation
  • Extreme anger/rage
  • Social isolation/withdrawal
  • Extreme shifts in mood
  • Giving away possessions
  • Recklessness

(National Institute of Mental Health, 2021; SAVE, 2020).

  1. “Talking about suicide puts the idea in a person’s head.”

This widely held belief is false! Acknowledging suicide can reduce stigma and shame and encourage help-seeking. (Dazzi, Gribble, Wessely, and Fear, 2014).

  1. “Suicide cannot be prevented.”

Suicide is a preventable public health problem. People who are encouraged to seek help, receive support, and have access to resources can and do get better (Carpiniello & Pinna, 2017; CDC, 2022). See below for ways to talk about and get help for yourself or someone else who is struggling with suicidal thoughts.

How to talk about suicide

How to talk about suicide

Remember suicide is a public health issue - phrases like "committed suicide" are based on the historical context of when suicide was a crime. Suicide is not a crime, it is a health issue. Consider utilizing phrases such as "died by suicide" or "attempted suicide." (Rogers, 2022; SAVE, 2020).

How to listen to and support someone who is suicidal:

  • Stay calm
  • Choose a time/place that is private and where you can speak openly and comfortably; without time constraints
  • Use open-ended questions, but also know it’s okay to ask the question, “Are you thinking about hurting/harming/killing yourself?”
  • Inquire about a plan. People who have established a plan are at higher risk of following through with that plan. Reach out to a crisis hotline or contact other emergency personnel.
  • Listen with empathy and without judgment.
  • Remember the value of non-verbal communication (e.g., head nodding, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions).
  • Reassure the person; offer hope and encouragement. Validate their emotions. Many people experience suicidal thinking and many people get better.
  • Provide or connect the person to professional resources (see end of article).
  • Help them develop a safety plan
  • Remove access to lethal items (I.e., firearms).

(988 Suicide & Crisis Hotline, n.d.; Beyond Blue, 2022; Rethink Mental Illness, n.d.; Stiehl, 2018)

What not to say/do:

  • Judge, dismiss, or try to “fix” or minimize the person’s problems.
  • Keep their suicidal thinking or plans secret if you think they are at risk of immediate harm or you are unsure.
  • Tell them you know how they feel.
  • Label the person as their mental illness; we have mental health challenges; we are not diagnoses. People-first language shows respect and dignity and separates individuals from their struggles.
  • If you think the person is at immediate risk of hurting themselves, do not leave them alone. Call 911, 988, or another emergency/crisis line, or bring them to the emergency department

(Beyond Blue, 2022; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2022; Rethink Mental Illness, n.d.)

What to do if you are having suicidal thoughts

What to do if you are having suicidal thoughts

  • Remember you are not alone. Many people have suicidal thoughts and people can and do get better. Suicide is preventable and help is out there.
  • Talk to someone. Talk to a friend, a family member, a mental health provider, a physician, a spiritual leader, or call a crisis helpline. (see the end of the article for resources)
  • Remove access to things that can be used to hurt yourself. Ask a trusted person to safeguard these items temporarily for you.
  • If you are at imminent risk of hurting yourself, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

(CDC, 2022; Mayo Clinic, 2022).

Hotlines & Resources

The following list contains multiple resources and crisis lines. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thinking or mental health challenges, reach out. Suicide is preventable and people can and do get better.

The Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988

Brave Space Alliance: 872-333-5199 (Black-led, Trans-led, LGBTQ+ Center)

Copline International Law Enforcement Lifeline: 800-267-5463 (COPLINE)

Crisis Textline: Text “HOME” to 741741

Hope for the Day Resource Compass: TEXT “ITSOK” TO 741741 (Access to low-cost and free resources for mental health and a variety of social services by zip code)

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 (HOPE)

National Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255 + 1

National Volunteer Fire Council - Fire and EMS Hotline: 888-731-3473 (FIRE)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Helpline: 800-662-4357 (HELP)

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386 (LGBTQ+ Youth)


988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (n.d.) The lifeline and 988.

Beyond Blue, LTD (2022). Having a conversation with someone you’re worried about. Beyond Blue.

Carpiniello, B. & Pinna , F. (2017). The reciprocal relationship between suicidality and stigma. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(35).

Centers for Disease Control (2018, Nov.) Suicide rising across the US. CDC: Vital Signs.

Centers for Disease Control (2022, July 25). Facts about suicide. CDC.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2022). Words matter. Today Campaign.

Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S. Fear, N.T. (2014). Does talking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine.

Fuller, K. (2020, Sept.) 5 Common myths about suicide debunked. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Blog.

Mayo Clinic Staff (2022). Are you thinking about suicide? How to stay safe and find treatment. Mayo Clinic.

Merriam-Webster (n.d.) Stigma. In Merriam-Webster dictionary. Retrieved August 29, 2022.

National Institute of Mental Health (2021). Frequently asked questions about suicide. Mental Health Information.

Olson, R. (n.d.) Suicide and stigma. Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Rethink Mental Illness (n.d.) Suicidal thoughts - how to support someone. Rethink Mental Illness.

Rogers, L. S. (2022). How to talk about suicide. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

SAVE (2020). Best practices and recommendations for reporting on suicide. Reporting on Suicide.

Stiehl, C. (2018). How not to talk about suicide. Self.

Written by: Jillian Perry, M.A., LCPC, NCC.

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