What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Suicidal

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Information in this article may be triggering. If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If someone in your life expresses that they may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, you may desperately want to help them but may not know what you should or shouldn’t say to them.

Talking to Someone Can Help Prevent Suicide

What you say to the person is important because talking to them can help prevent suicide, says Hilary Blumberg, MD, a psychiatrist, and director of the Mood Disorders Research Program at Yale School of Medicine.

“We need to provide hope and validation to those who are suicidal; therefore, it’s important to avoid any messaging that may increase their shame, judgment, or guilt,” says Jenna Hennessy, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and instructor of medical psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Being in this position can certainly be stressful. "We are all human, we mess up, and we end up saying things imperfectly," says Dr. Hennessy. However, the important thing is to do your best to help the person feel safe.

Jenna Hennessy, PhD

The most important thing is to create a safe space for someone to discuss how they are feeling, even if we don’t necessarily agree with or understand it.

— Jenna Hennessy, PhD

Here are some things you should not say to someone who is suicidal, and what you should say to them instead.

What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Suicidal

Below, Dr. Hennessy lists some things you should not say to someone who is living with thoughts of suicide and explains why these phrases may be harmful.

"Things aren't that bad."

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: When you hear that someone you love or care about is contemplating suicide, it can be tempting to highlight why you don’t perceive their life to be “that bad.” Most people do this to try to get their loved one to see a more positive perspective; however, it invalidates the person’s pain and can make them feel even more lonely and unheard.

"Other people have it much worse."

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: It's invalidating when you compare their situation to others who you think have it “worse.” This can often lead to increased feelings of guilt and shame on top of the emotional distress the person is already experiencing.

“Why are you being so dramatic?”

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: If someone comes to you and informs you that they are contemplating suicide, it is something that needs to be taken very seriously. It's extremely invalidating to tell someone that they're being "dramatic."

You're not the one experiencing the type of despair they're feeling, so labeling their emotions as "dramatic" minimizes their feelings.

“You’re doing this to get attention.”

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: Suggesting that their motive is predicated on the need for attention dangerously downplays the seriousness of the situation and misattributes their communication of distress as a form of emotional manipulation.

This can cause the person to stop confiding in others when they are having thoughts of suicide. It also leads to further isolation out of fear of judgment for talking about their distress.

“How could you even think about that?”

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: A statement like this attempts to shame a person into not being suicidal, and this does not work. Additionally, the presence of suicidal thoughts and urges is incredibly distressing for many people.

Communicating the message that they should feel shame for a thought that is ultimately out of their control does not make them stop thinking about suicide or make them stop feeling what they feel. Instead, they may end up feeling guilty for having these thoughts.

“How could you be so selfish?”

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: Typically, those that contemplate suicide often do so under the assumption that the world would be a better place without them. Therefore, they may be more likely to see living in their current state as more selfish than acting on their suicidal ideation.

“Have you tried going out more/working out/changing your job/etc.?”

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: This is a common response amongst well-intentioned loved ones who just want to make someone else’s pain go away. People are often under the assumption that using overly simplistic problem-solving as the first line of defense is the most effective way of helping those in distress.

If a friend or loved one is communicating suicidality, chances are that they have been feeling that way for quite some time and have either tried many solutions to no avail or do not feel they can access the types of solutions offered.

When we suggest solutions without taking the time to sit with someone’s pain, we often don’t acknowledge the barriers that are present and end up making seemingly impossible actions sound “easy.” This has the potential to increase the person's feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.

“No you’re not, you’re just having a rough time right now.”

Why this can be harmful, according to Dr. Hennessy: This type of response is a complete denial of the person’s very real misery, and it invalidates and minimizes their pain.

One of the hallmarks of suicidality is a deep sense of hopelessness that pervades the present and any thoughts about the future. The person is unable to imagine a world in which they don’t feel the level of pain they are currently feeling.

Jenna Hennessy, PhD

These responses minimize or invalidate someone's pain, which can lead to additional emotional distress, shame, and guilt.

— Jenna Hennessy, PhD

What to Say Instead

Dr. Hennessy shares some responses that may be more appropriate instead, and explains how they can help.

“I’m so glad you told me.”

How this can be helpful, according to Dr. Hennessy: Saying this lets them know that you're there for them. This comes from a place of non-judgment which, in turn, might lessen some guilt that they have. Even if you don’t know what to do to help, just being there for them and listening to them can greatly reduce their feelings of isolation and shame.

“Tell me more about how you’ve been feeling.”

How this can be helpful, according to Dr. Hennessy: It’s important to encourage the person to speak about their suicidal thoughts and urges. When someone is suicidal, their thoughts and feelings are often overwhelming, so they may feel significantly more heard and connected if they have someone to talk to about how they’re feeling.

Talking about it can also give the person time and space to identify and label the many different parts of their internal experience. This process can help them better understand themselves and reduce the weight of those experiences.

“You are not alone.”

How this can be helpful, according to Dr. Hennessy: It’s important to let the person know that they are not "weak" or "selfish" for thinking and feeling the way they do if they are suicidal. Doing this can help reduce shame and increase opportunities for connection.

How to Support Someone Who Is Suicidal

The truth is that many more individuals contemplate suicide than you might believe. It is unfortunately common to have thoughts of suicide.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that in 2020, 12.2 million adults in the United States contemplated suicide, 3.2 million people made a plan, and 1.2 million people made an attempt. Marginalized groups are disproportionately affected.

If a loved one or friend has opened up about their suicidal thoughts, Dr. Hennessy suggests some additional ways that you can support them:

  • Help them find treatment resources: Look for resources around you and help the person get in touch with qualified professionals. The person may require a treatment team, which can consist of many different types of resources including, but not limited to: a psychotherapist trained in suicidality, a psychiatrist, a support group, spiritual or religious leaders, and other community resources.
  • Let them know there is hope: Encourage the person to seek treatment and let them know there is hope for them to of deal with their problems and feel better. There are evidence-based treatments that have been shown to be effective in helping those who are suicidal.
  • Suggest alternative options: Sometimes people aren’t ready to contact a professional. Let them know that there are other resources, such as 24/7 hotlines that are always available.
  • Offer your support: Offer to drive them or accompany them to appointments if it will help get them the help they need.
  • Remove means: Get rid of any lethal objects that the person may use to attempt suicide. For example, if they have told you that they are thinking of overdosing on sleeping pills, remove those medications from their medicine cabinet. Or, if they have mentioned a gun, get rid of any weapons in their home.
  • Build connection: Increase opportunities for connection and communication however you can.
  • Call for help if you fear for their life: Know your own limits and get help if you're worried. Reach out to other people in the person’s life or call 911 if you fear for their safety. This can be difficult because you don’t want the person to feel like you've betrayed their trust. However, in a situation in which their life is in danger, it is far better to err on the side of caution and risk the person’s temporary anger with you rather than a very permanent loss.

It's OK to Seek Help for Yourself, Too

"It can be incredibly scary and painful to learn that someone you love and care about is thinking of ending their own life. If you are supporting or caring for someone who is suicidal, I strongly suggest seeking help for yourself as well, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed or need to process your own emotional reactions," says Dr. Hennessy.

A Word From Verywell

If someone confides in you that they have been living with thoughts of suicide, your reaction could help save their life.

“It is very important to take thoughts of suicide seriously, listen to the person carefully, avoid passing judgment, and try to come up with ways to keep them safe together,” says Dr. Blumberg.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide prevention.

  2. Standley CJ, Foster-Fishman P. Intersectionality, social support, and youth suicidality: A socioecological approach to prevention. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2021;51(2):203-211. doi:10.1111/sltb.12695

  3. Méndez-Bustos P, Calati R, Rubio-Ramírez F, Olié E, Courtet P, Lopez-Castroman J. Effectiveness of psychotherapy on suicidal risk: a systematic review of observational studies. Front Psychol. 2019;10:277. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00277

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.