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The idea that asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will “put the idea in their head” is a common misconception. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The idea that asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will “put the idea in their head” is a common misconception. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 17, 2024

It’s OK to ask a loved one if they’re feeling suicidal

The idea that asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will “put the idea in their head” is a common misconception. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The idea that asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will “put the idea in their head” is a common misconception. (Image: Tina Tiller)

It’s often the last thing people want to do, but asking someone if they’re having suicidal thoughts is a critical first step to helping them. 

Content warning: this story discusses suicide and suicidal ideation. For a list of resources that can help if you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, see below. 

It’s been five years since the Labour government rejected setting a suicide reduction target. They wanted to show that every single life matters, and feared that the setting of a target might show a tolerance for any number of suicides in Aotearoa. The true target became not a smaller number, but zero. While suicide rates have reduced since 2019, we are not there yet. The youth suicide rate in Aotearoa is the second highest in the developed world, a rate more than twice the average among the 41 OECD countries surveyed. In the 2022/23 financial year, there were 565 suspected self-inflicted deaths in Aotearoa

These are heavy numbers connected to huge problems in this country and world, and the vastness of these, alongside our personal grief for those we have lost, can leave us feeling powerless. We need seismic shifts to better understand our concerning rates of suicide as a country and we deserve a government that will prioritise these shifts. But there are also things each of us can do in our daily lives to help keep the people we love safe. 

For the last six years, I have worked with CoLiberate, a social enterprise working towards a world where everyone has a trusted person to turn to when things get tough. We provide Mental Health First Response skills training, helping everyday people become confident to offer support. What I’ve learned from this time, more than anything else, is that suicide is preventable. Acting on suicidal thoughts is a response to a moment or moments of distress, and if we can support a person through these moments, we can alleviate their urge to die. This can be hard to stomach for those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide, but believing that suicide is preventable and being empowered with the tools to support someone through suicidal ideation is integral to saving lives.

If you know someone who is struggling, it is important to know that there are common signs of suicidal ideation to look out for. The Ministry of Health and Mental Health Foundation have helpful lists of signs and signals to keep in mind. And if you feel any concern for someone’s safety, it is always OK to trust your gut. If you see or sense these signs, the next essential step is to ask them directly if they are feeling suicidal. 

It is a common fear that asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will put the idea into their head, but this is proven to be untrue. Multiple sources including the Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation tell us that asking about suicide will not put the thought into a person’s head. 

I know that it’s scary to believe this. I have supported friends as they sat across from me covered in their own tears and tissue shreds, having what was maybe the worst day of their life, and all I wanted was to alleviate their pain; to talk about the good days they will have and the ease they will soon feel. Asking them if they were thinking of ending their life was the last thing I wanted to do, because it felt like it risked showing them a glimpse of rock bottom. But I knew it’s what I had to do. 

I have asked this question eight times. And even though I have had ample opportunity to role-play this scenario, I was still scared and hesitant, trying to stop my voice from shaking as I spoke. But each time, the other person took a deep breath, considered my question, and whether their answer was yes or no, in the end they thanked me for asking it. 

In one of these situations, the person wasn’t feeling suicidal, but was able to come to me in the future when they were. The channel was open: they knew I wouldn’t be panicked and could trust that I was someone they could tell.

So how do we approach actually asking the question, and what do we do if the response is “yes”? 

The key thing is to be clear. If you ask an ambiguous question, eg, “You’re not thinking of doing something silly are you?”, you’ll likely get an ambiguous answer. Ask it as clearly and confidently as you can: “Are you thinking of taking your own life?” or “Have you found yourself thinking of suicide?” Find your own way to ask, but always be straight up about it. 

If they say yes, do your best to stay calm. Thank them for telling you, let them know that thoughts of suicide are common, and that it’s important they have support while they’re feeling this way. Explain that the key next steps are to ensure they are not alone and to get more support on the way. This might mean calling your local DHB Mental Health Crisis Assessment team, a trusted therapist, emergency services, or more friends and whānau to support. But always, the first step is asking if they’re feeling suicidal. 

At times in my life, suicidal ideation has come in the form of a controlling impulse from within, one which tells me the world would be a better place for everyone if I wasn’t here. When it happens, it’s terrifying. My deepest fear is that the impulse will become stronger than me; that I’ll find myself in a situation I can’t come back from. 

I once stood in my friend’s kitchen after sleeping on her sofa for days, avoiding my home. I can still feel the weight of that time: a physical and emotional heaviness which dragged me to the ground, making everything intensely slow, painful, impossible. These feelings were overtaking me and getting worse each day. As I nodded and smiled at people I passed on the street, I wondered if today would be the day my pain would kill me. 

My friend brewed coffee on her stove as we watched the steam rise and fog her window. Then she asked me straight up if I was feeling suicidal. I crumbled and cried into her open arms. I finally felt as though I had a friend, someone who could see what was happening and wouldn’t leave me alone with myself. 

She helped me make a safety plan, and we wrote a list of trusted people I could ask for support. In the coming weeks, I got a therapist. In time, the suicidal impulse dissolved. When it returns, I know that if I can see it as a loud signal that I need more support, I won’t be so afraid of it. 

Not all stories are as straightforward as mine. I was lucky to have a friend who knew what to do. It all began with that one question. Her words shed light and air onto those thoughts that had been thriving on my silence and created a cushioning that helped keep me safe for the coming months. Mainly, her courage and words showed me that I wasn’t alone. That my will to die had something to contend with: someone else’s will for me to live. 

If you or someone you know is in need of support, get in touch:

TAUTOKO Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865

1737 – Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 – Free text 4357 (HELP)

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat. Open 24/7.

Your local DHB Mental Health Crisis Assessment team

Available training:

LifeKeepers – Suicide prevention training

CoLiberate – Mental Health First Response training

LeVa – Pasifika suicide prevention programme

Keep going!