Death by suicide is an impossibly painful topic to discuss. This week, we have seen the passing of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain, sparking an important conversation about how to look out for the warning signs of suicide, and how to process the complicated feelings of grief for people who touched many of our lives. One of the most important outcomes of these conversations, though, is to learn what we can say to a friend who may be at risk for suicide, in a way that shows them they are seen, they are loved, and that they matter.
Media coverage, especially sensationalized media coverage, can be triggering for people who live with mental illness. “It calls to mind for people those they may have lost to suicide,” Melinda R. Paige, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, CPCS, assistant professor in clinical mental health counseling at Argosy University in Atlanta, tells Bustle. Moreover, “People are focusing on their own feelings of loneliness and depression when things like this are happening,” Dr. Soroya Bacchus, MD, tells Bustle.
Moreover, news items that characterize these losses as a “shock,” or that eulogize the deceased, can present an unrealistic image of death by suicide, one that suggests that suicide does not have warning signs — it does — and can lead to the possibility of "copycat suicides." The most important thing to know in these situations is how to talk to a friend who may need help, and what to say — literally — to make sure they feel heard.
It can be unbearably painful to lean into these topics, which is why it doesn’t come naturally to us. “What we do when someone tells us about our pain, we get uncomfortable,” says Dr. Paige. “We talk about ourselves [in order to] distance ourselves.” Even when we know to practice empathy in these situations, this manifests as an impulse to say “I understand” when someone discloses that they are hurting emotionally, to say, “I’ve felt pain like that before.” The reality is, though, that while your experiences with pain, too, are valid, it is impossible to truly understand the pain your friend may be going through. Even when you’re talking to your best friend from childhood, whom you’ve shared every success, every failure with, it’s impossible to know, exactly, how they see their pain, how it grows or abates, what triggers it, what soothes it. And it’s important to be respectful of the distance between your two experiences.
"Never be afraid to ask."
Dr. Paige tells Bustle that, to practice this empathy in an actionable way, all you need to say is, “I’m just so glad you told me.” "There’s no words that can convey [our empathy], because we don’t understand another person's experience,” says Dr. Paige. Instead, saying “I’m just so glad you told me” acknowledges the pain this person is feeling, and signals to them that they are seen, that they can trust you with their disclosure.
Dr. Paige also notes that it’s OK to be direct and ask a friend if they are considering suicide or self-harm. “Never be afraid to ask. Typically, people think if I ask 'Are you OK?', it can be triggering, but it's not.” In fact, she says, if you know that a friend may be triggered or at risk for suicide, “It can be a relief to have someone acknowledge their suffering.” Just as we caution people never to be afraid to ask for help, similarly, if you’re in someone’s support system, never be afraid to ask if they need help.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can find more resources about suicide prevention at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.