“It would be better if I had never been born.” Hearing a beloved friend utter these words makes you want to jump in with a quick platitude that will fix everything. The problem is, by the time a person feels low enough to want to end things, “cheer up” won’t do much to help.
You want to comfort your loved one and keep them safe, but hearing someone you care about seeks to self-harm can rattle anyone. In your distress, you might say something you wish you could take back. Before you utter those words, consider this list of seven things you should never say to a suicidal person — and what to do instead.
1. Suicide Is a Selfish Act
When a person contemplates suicide, they honestly believe that other people will be better off when they are gone. Reinforcing their belief by calling them selfish only gives them another reason to feel like you’d feel happier with them out of the picture. Regardless of how you consider the act, your job isn’t to judge — it’s to exercise empathy.
Tread carefully with preachy statements like, “suicide is a sin.”. While you might think it helpful to say, “You could go to hell if you go through with it,” your words could backfire. Suicide attempts are more frequent among those with a religious affiliation, although researchers remain unsure why. Regardless, the suffering individual might feel as if Satan’s backyard would be a step up from their current situation or that they deserve eternal damnation.
2. It’s Not That Bad
Unless you can step inside another person’s skin, you can’t possibly understand how devastating something feels. Yes, maybe one lost job isn’t the end of the world — but if the person has a history of other losses and the resulting economic hardship, it can seem that way. Plus, unless you are your friend’s accountant, you might not have any idea of the extent of their financial woes. Unless you walk around in their skin, you can’t fully appreciate their chronic pain.
Instead, offer to listen without judgment. Giving someone permission to voice their frustrations can help them find a solution independently.
3. You’re Just Acting Silly or Emotional
What happens when you tell a hysterical individual to calm down? Nine times out of ten, the statement backfires by raising the other person’s ire more. The same principle applies when someone you love makes suicidal statements — only the consequences can be more tragic.
Anytime someone talks about wanting to die or disappear, you should take the conversation seriously and offer help. There is no evidence that discussing suicidal ideation increases the likelihood a person will act. However, there are ample reports of people ending their lives when they felt that no one understood them — or cared to try.
4. This, Too, Shall Pass
Chances are, the other person knows that their present situation is temporary. However, even if you grew up together, you might not realize the extent of accumulated trauma the other person carries with them from childhood forward. Suicide sometimes occurs due to one traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one. More often, though, the desire to end it arises from repeated beatdowns — the person is wary of suffering the slings and arrows of what may be an outrageous fate.
5. Quit Seeking Attention
“You always have to play the victim.” Maybe you utter these words in exasperation, but they can devastate a suicidal person. Threats to end your life are an attempt to get attention — and answering such statements with a negative response can reaffirm your loved one’s belief that everyone will be better off with them gone.
Instead, ask, “Why do you feel that way?” Then, genuinely listen to their concerns. You don’t have to offer advice or a solution to their problems, but you can let them know that you do care.
6. You Need Help
Somebody who feels suicidal knows that they need help. The problem is, they may feel it is out of reach for them. The United States already has the distinction of being the only wealthy nation that doesn’t guarantee some form of health care coverage. During the pandemic alone, 9 million Americans lost their coverage, and millions more had none before it struck.
Telling a suicidal person to see a psychiatrist when they lack coverage or can’t afford their outrageous copays makes them feel like more of a failure. Instead, if you know they have a financial hardship, point them to free resources like online support groups for people with similar issues.
7. I Don’t Want to Be Around You When You Talk Like This
Of all the things not to say to a suicidal person, this one may be the cruelest. Feeling depressed enough to want to end things is incredibly isolating in itself. Telling a suicidal person that you don’t want to be around them is equivalent to saying, “You’re right — I’d be better off without you.”
Instead, use compassionate honesty. Say, “I don’t like hearing you talk this way, but I understand that life can be overwhelming. What’s going on, and how can I help?” This way, you’re not reinforcing their perceptions that everything is terrible by engaging in a pity party with them. You are, however, opening the door to healing communication.
Do Your Part to Prevent Tragedy by Learning What Not to Say to a Suicidal Person
Suicide does more than end one life — it devastates those left behind and leaves them questioning what they could have done differently. By learning what not to say to a suicidal person, you can spare yourself the guilt and quite possibly save a life.