In my last post, I discussed asking about suicide if someone is displaying worrisome behavior or making comments that hint at the possibility of suicide. But asking such a personal and direct question can be very difficult. Oftentimes, we don’t ask because we don’t want to make matters worse, or because we’re afraid of the answer. But the reality is, simply asking the question of whether someone is thinking about suicide is not going to make matters worse. What it will do, is allow the person to understand that you have noticed them, that you care about their wellbeing, and that you are not afraid to talk to them about this frightening subject, and offer help. Even if you are afraid, this shows that your care for the person is greater than your fear of broaching a sensitive subject.

It’s important to ask directly because this signals that you are comfortable with the topic, not tiptoeing around it, and it also allows for clarity for both you and the person you want to help. Asking about “harming yourself” or “doing something serious” are not bad questions, and they can ease you into the conversation as needed. But remember, you haven’t actually asked about suicide until you have said the words: “suicide,” “killing yourself,” or “ending your life.” These are the best words to use, and the clearest.

Oftentimes it’s helpful to use the warning signs that you’ve noticed, to help you ask the question. So for example, “I’ve noticed you have been missing work a lot lately and looking really down. Is anything wrong?” This could be followed up by something like, “Wow, when people go through serious depression like what you’re describing, sometimes they think about suicide. Has that crossed your mind?” Or you might say, “That comment about never wanting to wake up has got me worried. Are you thinking about suicide?” This is honest, straightforward and caring, which is often what a person who is at risk for suicide needs to hear the most.

And if the person is not thinking about suicide, they’ll just say no. If they say yes, your job is simply to listen, and put them in touch with someone who can help, without leaving them alone. For more about connecting someone at risk for suicide with help, stay tuned for my next post.

If you or a loved one are in crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text helpde to 741-741 to be connected with a trained counselor.