(Content Warning: suicide, ableism)
When a friend tells you they’re suicidal, it’s hard to know what to say – especially since so many of the common responses to suicide are informed by harmful, ableist myths.
In my experience, even friends with the best of intentions say hurtful things to suicidal people under the guise of discouraging them from suicide or self-harm.
So here are some common phrases we really need to stop saying to suicidal people. Let’s unpack these phrases and why they’re hurtful.
1. ‘Suicide Is a Coward’s Way Out’
This is a common sentiment around suicide. To prevent people from committing suicide, we often shame them by saying it’s cowardly.
Once, I confided in someone about my suicidal thoughts and they responded by saying suicide was “uncharacteristic” of me. They said I was a brave person and that suicide, being a “cowardly act,” wasn’t something I would or should do.
Their comment didn’t make me feel brave – and it didn’t discourage me from committing suicide. All it did was make me feel cowardly and weak. As someone who was already feeling a deluge of painful emotions, I didn’t need to feel even worse about myself.
Ultimately, labeling suicide as cowardly is really unhelpful because we make suicidal people feel ashamed of their thoughts and feelings.
This doesn’t discourage people from attempting suicide – it discourages them from seeking help.
2. ‘You’re Just Being Manipulative’
While some people do use suicide threats to manipulate and abuse others, this is certainly not always the case.
When I was in sixth grade, a classmate of mine had a suicidal episode.
I don’t remember which classmate it was, or what really happened to them. But what sticks in my mind to this day is the reaction of our teacher.
She said that people who self-harm or feel suicidal were seeking attention or being manipulative.
And even though it wasn’t said to me directly, this phrase stuck with me for years to come. It discouraged me from seeking help because I didn’t want to seem manipulative.
When we assume people who are suicidal are being manipulative or seeking attention, we imply that we don’t think their pain is real. We’re invalidating their pain.
We’re implying that the tragic thing is not that somebody wants to die, but that they’re telling someone about those feelings.
Ultimately, this discourages suicidal people from looking for help because it makes us feel like nobody truly wants to help us.
3. ‘What About the People You’ll Leave Behind?’
Making suicidal people feel guilty really isn’t a good move.
Think about it: We’re feeling so utterly low already, and we don’t need guilt added to that.
Yet, people commonly use suicidal people’s loved ones to guilt-trip them out of suicide. Often, people will say things like:
- “But your family will be so heartbroken!”
- “Your children will be left without a parent. How could you do that to them?”
- “How could you be so selfish as to leave me?”
In reality, we’re probably aware that our suicide would hurt some people, or we truly believe nobody would care.
In my case, I never worried about how my loved ones would feel after my death, because I believed that when I was dead, I’d never have to worry about them – or anything else – ever again.
It’s important not to make someone’s suicidality about yourself or others. They’re the person who’s hurting, so the focus needs to be on their feelings, their thoughts, and finding them help.
At the same time, you might have an instinct to try to remind them of all the support and love they’re surrounded by.
If that’s the case, try saying this instead:
- “I wouldn’t resent you if you committed suicide, but I do care about you deeply and you would be missed.”
- “There are a great number of people who want to support you, even though it doesn’t feel like that right now. “
- “Let’s make plans to relax with your best friend/partner/cousin sometime soon.”
This way, you can remind them of their support network without heaping on the guilt – a tactless and manipulative move.
4. ‘You Should Just Be Positive!’
When I reached out for help while suicidal, I often received the same well-intended, but unhelpful advice that is frequently offered to mentally ill folks.
This includes telling people to simply “be positive” – one of the most common, yet useless comments mentally ill people receive.
Thinking “positively” can be really helpful for some, but when you’re in a great deal of pain, it’s seldom ever that simple. Chances are, the suicidal person has already tried to “look on the bright side” and struggled to find something truly worth living for.
Negativity isn’t the cause of our mental illness. Usually, negativity is a result of having mental illnesses. Because of this, telling suicidal people to “be positive” is about as effective as telling a car with an empty gas tank to “just drive.”
This isn’t to say that positivity has no place in recovering from a suicidal episode, but rather that suicidal folks need a hell of a lot of help to get to a positive space.
One of the most effective forms of support I ever received while suicidal was from a friend who managed to work an old holiday into the conversation.
She recalled all the happy memories we had together on our vacation: the feeling of sand between our toes, the giggling of our friends during a game of 30 Seconds, how the sea water stung on our skin, and how we planned on traveling back someday.
She reminded me of a few beautiful memories I had. While she never said it, she implied heavily that I was capable of feeling happiness once, and I’ll be capable of feeling happy again.
And importantly, throughout all this, she never implied that the good memories invalidated the pain and hurt I was feeling. She acknowledged my suicidal feelings, but reminded me that I felt something else at one point, too.
I think that highlighted an important truth for me: that pain and happiness coexist in this world, and the pain I felt would pass as the happiness did. It gave me hope.
Rather than telling suicidal people to be positive, we can remind them of positive things – of beauty, of happiness, of support – without demonizing or invalidating their negative feelings.
So What Should You Say?
Plenty of us say the above phrases to discourage people from acting on suicidal feelings. In other words, we say these things to prevent them from actually attempting suicide.
But I would encourage a different approach. Rather than discouraging people from hurting themselves, we need to work with them to treat the pain which makes them feel that way in the first place.
Often, outsiders believe that the tragic thing about suicide is the actual death. As someone who has attempted suicide, I know that the tragedy is not dying, but being in so much pain that death is preferable to living.
To help someone who’s suicidal, we need to make them feel like there’s a solution to their pain that isn’t death. So when someone reaches out to you, try to do the following things:
- Reassure them that you’re there to support them. If they reached out to you, thank them for trusting you.
- Momentarily distract them from the pain. Your first instinct might be to get them to talk about what’s wrong, and if they want to do that, let them. But another really useful method is to find a way to calm them down and forget, even for a little while, about the pain. Encourage them to engage their brain by playing a game like Candy Crush or Tetris, crafting or knitting, painting their nails, or reading.
- When they feel slightly better, ask if they would like to discuss their suicidal thoughts and what triggered them.
- Work with them to find a way forward. How can they address their difficulties? Can they find therapy, a support group, or a network of supportive friends? Might they need to talk to a psychiatrist or doctor about medication? If something specific triggered their suicidal episode, how could they prevent it from happening in future? Making plans might make them feel more hopeful and in control.
- Make some future plans with them. Give them something to look forward to, whether it’s a picnic, a coffee date, or plans to make a veggie patch in their garden.
- Make sure you also practice self-care. Caring for other people can be difficult and can be a huge emotional and mental strain, so make sure you have time to relax and care for yourself, too.
It’s really tough to comfort suicidal people. It’s hard to say anything that could possibly relieve the pain of someone who’s hurting so badly they no longer want to live.
But if we’re attentive to what we say to them, we can avoid saying painful, hurtful things when trying to help them.
Ultimately, this will make us better, kinder supporters and help our loved ones heal.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please reach out to someone. If you’re in the US you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255. If you’re not in the US, click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and a queer, polyamorous, South African feminist who is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Anthropology. Originally from Cape Town, she now studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she works as vice-chair of the Gender Action Project. She has been featured as a guest writer on websites such as Women24 and Foxy Box, while also writing for her personal blog. Follow her on Twitter @sianfergs. Read her articles here.