Fashion designer Kate Spade has died at 55 years old last year. She was found dead in her New York City home, and police reported that she died by apparent suicide.
For many of us, our tendency is to completely avoid IRL conversations about suicide, perhaps because it feels scary, or we feel there’s a stigma. But that’s exactly why it’s good to talk about it. “Stigma around suicide is bred from silence,” Shairi Turner, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer of Crisis Text Line, tells Teen Vogue. “When we avoid conversations about tough stuff, it can come off as if the topic is bad or taboo. Suicide isn’t a bad word.”
Beyond that, having open and responsible conversations about suicide can actually help prevent it. “For every one person that dies by suicide here in the United States, there are about 278 other people that think seriously about suicide but don’t kill themselves,” John Draper, PhD, Director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, tells Teen Vogue. “What that tells us is…the overwhelming majority of suicides are prevented; and they’re prevented because people talk with each other and talk with others in ways that get help. And if we are more supportive with each other or find ways to help people through a crisis, or find ways to help ourselves through a crisis…we can get to the other side of it.”
So, how do you talk about it? We checked in with some experts to find out.
If you don’t know if your friend has been affected by suicide…When suicide makes the news or the conversation comes up, don’t assume that whoever you’re talking to hasn’t been affected by it just because they haven’t said something. “With suicide, you don’t know what somebody else’s history is,” Melissa Moreno, a crisis intervention expert at Talkspace, tells Teen Vogue. “And you really don’t know [if] maybe they’ve had a family member or a close friend [impacted by it] or they’ve thought about it themselves.”]
With that in mind, it’s important to approach the conversation respectfully and openly. “For situations such as Logan Paul’s video or even news about celebrity suicides, the best way to address it with friends is to be open and nonjudgmental,” Dr. Turner says. “Statistically, many Americans have been affected by suicide in their lives. We never know who is struggling, so by opening conversations with phrases like, ‘What do you think about’ or ‘Did you hear about’ rather than, ‘Isn’t it crazy that’ or ‘It’s so messed up that,’ you’re inviting your friends to open up to you. Phrases and word choice can significantly alter the way a conversation goes! Words like ‘crazy’ [and] ‘insane’…have innately negative connotations. You can express your emotions around a situation without judging it.”
Moreno suggests asking friends what their thoughts are on it and how it makes them feel. “I would also encourage people to say, ‘Have you ever thought of that?’ or, [if you’ve personally had suicidal thoughts], ‘I thought of that and I figured out how to get help with that,’” she says.
If neither of you have been personally impacted by suicide…If, when you ask that question, your friend tells you that they’ve never been personally impacted in any way, you can continue to have a productive dialogue on the topic. Dr. Draper suggests starting by saying “that’s really great to hear,” and then opening up the conversation to how you can educate yourselves and help others in the future. “There are things that we can all do, just like CPR when a person is choking or having a heart attack,” he says. He suggests discussing options like going to the website BeThe1To.com and familiarizing yourself with the five action steps to communicating with someone who might be suicidal — even if you don’t think you know someone who is at the time.
“There’s bound to be somebody who is going to be going through a hard time in their life,” he says. “In fact, it’s a little known fact that one out of six high school students every year thinks seriously about suicide, so there’s bound to be somebody that they know at one point or another who’s thinking about it. The good news is most people don’t kill themselves. But what that is a sign of is feeling alone, and trapped, and distressed, and if you can tell a person, ‘Hey, you’re not alone. You’re not trapped. I’m here to support you. I’m going to be here for you,’ you’re already halfway home. I think [learning the five steps] is a way to say, ‘Maybe you and I aren’t going through it, but a number of our friends may be at some point or another. Here’s what we can do to help.”
If you know your friend has contemplated or attempted suicide…If, when you ask whether or not your friend has been impacted by suicide, they say that they have contemplated or attempted it, Dr. Draper says to start by telling them how happy you are they’re alive. Then, ask them how they got through it, which will be helpful for you to know if your friend is ever feeling that way again. “It’s a reference for you for the future,” Dr. Draper says. “But it’s also important for them to remind themselves, ‘What did get me through that? What is helpful?’”
And if you already know that your friend has contemplated or attempted suicide in the past but don’t feel comfortable directly asking if something triggered any of those feelings, Moreno notes that you can still show your support. “You may be able to say, ‘Yeah, I saw that video’ or, ‘Just so you know, I care about you.’ So even if you don’t bring up the conversation of the exact video itself, [you can let] that person know…there’s always help available.”
If a friend tells you they’re triggered by the news or conversation…“It might be a gut instinct to freak out or worry about someone who reveals that they’re triggered by negative media representation,” Dr. Turner says. “You might have the immediate urge to tell them to stop feeling that way. After all, things that we don’t understand can be scary and the majority of people don’t understand suicide.” But instead of freaking out, she suggests asking questions like, “How can I best help you in this moment?” or “What sorts of things help when you feel this way?”
Moreno suggests the same, and offers various other specific questions you can go through, like, “Do you need me to tell somebody? Do you need to get your own help? Do you need to go to the hospital? Do you need me to call your parents? Do you need me to just sit with you and just be? Do you want to talk about what’s going on?”
“Just offering the support and letting that person be able to come back to you and say, ‘Yeah, I need to talk about it for a few minutes and now I feel better.’” Or, those questions may lead to your friend saying that they’re currently feeling suicidal.
If that’s the case, Moreno says it’s important to enlist the help of others (like a hot line or therapist, parents, a teacher, a coach, or clergy member), even if your friend asks you not to. “The one time that you have to break the trust in the friendship is when it comes to suicide,” she says. “Because if you don’t break that trust, that could be the one time where that person does hurt themselves; and there’s no coming back from that guilt. You may have to recover the friendship or lose the friendship, but…that person’s safety is always the most important.”
In general, if you feel like your friend may be suicidal, Dr. Draper suggests following those five steps. “The most important step of all is to be there for the person,” he says. “Make sure that you’re listening to them non-judgmentally. You don’t have to necessarily talk them out of suicide; you need to let them know that they’re not alone, and you’re going to be there for them, and you’re going to help them get help so they don’t have to go through this alone and you’re going to help keep them safe.”
If your friend has lost a loved one to suicide…In this case, it’s normal to feel like bringing up the topic of a suicide in the news could upset your friend, or to feel like you can’t bring it up because you don’t know what you would say. But resist the urge to keep quiet. Again, as Dr. Turner said, avoiding the discussion contributes to the stigma surrounding suicide.
Even a brief message to your friend can go a long way. “I don’t think anyone doesn’t appreciate somebody saying, ‘I’m thinking about you,’” Dr. Draper says. “It never hurts to say… ‘Hey, I saw this in the news’ and, especially if this is something that’s relatively fresh, ‘Whenever I hear something like this happen, I think about you and your lost loved one; and I hope you’re doing okay.’ You have nothing to lose by saying that. And actually the more caring, and concerned, and supportive our conversations are with each other in this world; the less distress, the less suicidality and the greater connections are going to be around this.”
If you’re not sure where to go after your initial message, Dr. Turner says to simply let your friend guide the conversation. “Even if they don’t want to talk about it in the moment, they’ll appreciate knowing that they can come to you in the future,” she says.
If you don’t want to talk about it…If you’re in a group of people who begin talking about suicide or something relating to suicide that they saw in the news and it’s triggering for you, or you don’t want to talk about it for any reason, you don’t have to. If you’re not comfortable telling the people you’re with that’s the case, Dr. Draper says you can always simply walk away. Go to the bathroom or find another way to physically remove yourself from the conversation.
But there are also straightforward ways to tell your friend(s) you don’t want to have that discussion, like saying you’re uncomfortable and trying to change the subject, Moreno says. “If you’re open and comfortable enough with that person, you may be able to say, ‘This is affecting me and I’m beginning to get upset about it,’” she says.
If that feels like too much, you can keep it even simpler. “‘I don’t want to talk about that right now’ or, ‘I’m not sure how I feel about it right now’ can go a long way,” Dr. Turner says. “Specific time frames let someone know that it isn’t the best time for the conversation, but you might be ready in the future. You don’t owe your story to anyone, but using time specific language keeps that conversation on pause for the future.”
Ultimately, while it can feel scary to talk about suicide, it can also be hugely beneficial. As Dr. Turner says, “Having honest conversations with your friends is the first step to letting everyone know that help is out there and we’re never alone in this.”
If you or someone you know is going through a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.