Asking someone about how things are and whether they’re thinking about suicide are our best tools for finding out whether they might benefit from help – and it could save their life. Most of the time, they won’t be thinking about suicide, but it’s better to check: saying something is better than saying nothing at all. Importantly:
Asking someone whether they’re having thoughts of suicide won’t put the idea in their head.
Critically, asking directly about suicide can help someone to open up – this could be a relief, and it could also be the first step towards them getting the support they need. Some people may not come forward to talk because they worry about how people will see them or the consequences, like being taken off the run. You can help them by opening the conversation yourself.
We know it can feel hard to begin a conversation about suicide, so we’ve put together a few things to get you started. First of all, it’s helpful to plan ahead – think about:
- When to ask – aim for a time when you won’t be rushed.
- Where to ask – it’s best to be somewhere you can talk privately, without interruptions.
- How to ask – it’s usually better to ask in person so you can read their body language, but it’s okay to initially use the phone, videocall, or text if this is the usual way you talk.
- Why you’re asking – it can be helpful to say why you’re concerned: have they started behaving differently, or is there a specific difficult event or issue to check in with them about?
It can be tricky to find the right time and place – but finding a quiet corner or arranging to meet later is better than waiting too long.
How to have a conversation about suicide
It’s common to be worried about ‘saying the wrong thing’ in a conversation about suicide, but there’s no fixed script or ‘right’ things to say – just talk to them as you would usually. It might be helpful to keep the following points in mind.
- Show that you care and want to listen – aim for a relaxed, friendly and calm approach. You might feel shocked or upset by what they say, but at this point, try to listen and keep calm.
- Have patience – give them time to think and talk, and try not to fill gaps with chatter. This kind of conversation can take a while, and it may go on a roundabout route. Stay with them – on ‘their page’ – and don’t rush them.
- Use open questions – try to ask questions that open up the conversation rather than ones with simple or ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Think about using questions starting with words like ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘what’, and ‘when’.
- Say it back – check that you’ve understood by repeating what they‘ve said, but try to avoid giving your own interpretations or offering guidance until they’ve finished.
- Ask directly about suicide – one of the most difficult things is asking directly about whether someone is thinking about suicide. However, it’s the best way to get them the right support. Don’t be worried about asking, even if you think they’ll say they’re fine.
Don’t be worried about saying the wrong thing – just do your best. Don’t be afraid of asking – it’s always better to make sure that they’re okay.
I don’t know what to say
It’s normal to be unsure about what to say in these situations, so we’ve put together a few suggestions for you. Have a look at the headings below – you can click to expand them for more information.
How should I open the conversation?
Starting the conversation doesn’t have to be a big, scary thing – you could use one of these simple openers:
- “How are you doing/feeling today?”
- “How has your week been?”
- “How are you doing after … [name an event, e.g. that accident/your break-up etc.]?”
- “I’ve been a bit worried about you/you’ve seemed a little quiet/irritable… what’s been happening?”
- If you work with them, you could ask how their Watch was, or comment on how they’ve seemed when at work.
Asking a simple, direct question is the best way to help people tell you if they’ve been having thoughts of suicide:
- “Have you had any thoughts about suicide?”
- “Have you felt like you might want to end your life?”
Remember: simply asking them about suicide isn’t going to put the idea in their head.
How do I end the conversation?
Depending on how the conversation’s gone, these are some things you could think about saying towards the end of the conversation:
- Reassure them – tell them it’s okay that they’ve told you difficult things, and that you won’t be telling loads of people.
- Ask about next steps – what would they like to happen now?
- Offer to check in with them– suggest you could check in with them in a few days to see how they’re doing.
What if they have thoughts or plans for suicide, or I’m still concerned about them?
This can feel scary, and you may not be sure what to say or do next. There is further detailed information on what to do next in order to help keep them safe available HERE.
What if they say they’re fine, but I’m not so sure?
Many people will say they’re fine even when they’re not. You can’t make someone talk, but do ask again if you’re not sure about them. If you think it’s appropriate, you could talk to someone else who might be able to give you more advice (this could include one of the suicide-related support services) or consider whether there’s someone else they might be more likely to open up to.
Talking with a child or young person under 18
Especially with children and young people, it can help if they trust and feel safe around the person asking; this can help them to open up. If you’re not close to the young person yourself then, if possible, contact someone who is close to them, so that you can share your concerns. If this isn’t possible, then it’s important that you still approach them yourself and encourage them to seek help.
For anyone under 18, you should tell someone who can support them about your concern. This is especially true if you’re not the child’s parent or guardian – it can help them to get the support they need.
Younger people are more likely to self-harm than engage in suicidal behaviour, so asking about self-harm and seeking specific support for this may be appropriate.
How do I approach someone I don’t know?
There may be times when you’re worried about someone you don’t know. For example, a stranger might look agitated or upset, or they might be looking over a bridge for a long period of time, without moving.
If there’s a chance they might be thinking about suicide or may attempt it, you should approach them. Although this can be difficult, asking a simple question can interrupt their suicidal thoughts and help to bring them back into the present. This can be turning point in helping them to get support.
Please note: This guidance is for use in personal situations. If you’re approaching someone as part of a job role (e.g. attending a call as a fire and rescue service member), please refer to relevant fire service guidance.
We have details on typical warning signs you can look out for to help understand if someone might be at immediate risk. You can find these warning signs on the suicide prevention page.
Here are some tips on how to approach a stranger you’re worried about.
- Start a normal conversation – “Hi, how are you?”
- Make a simple connection – “I’m [name]… What’s your name?”
- Distract them with simple questions – “Could you tell me how to get to…?”, “Where can I get a coffee?”
- Ask how they’re doing and continue the conversation – “Are you alright?”, “What’s brought you here?”, “You’re looking a bit upset, what’s going on for you?”
- Try to stay with them and keep the conversation going – “Would you like to join me?”, “Is that coffee place nice?”
- Seek support – e.g. “Is there anyone you’d like me to call?”, “Have you tried the Samaritans?”
For details on how to specifically ask about suicide, have a look at ‘How do I ask directly about suicide?’.
If someone discloses that they are having suicidal thoughts, follow this link for details of what to do next to help keep them safe.
Looking after yourself
This is likely to be a difficult or worrying time for you, so it is important that you actively look after yourself, maybe talk to someone or seek your own support. Further ideas of how to do this and support services are available by clicking on ‘Sources of Support’ below.