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Many of us will notice changes in the people around us and get the feeling that ‘something is not right’ or is different with them. You may not want to say anything for fear of making the situation worse or because you don’t know what to say if they confirm your concerns.

While these conversations can be very difficult and confronting, there is a lot you can do. By talking to the person and getting further information, you can assist them to take positive action.

Many people who have thoughts of ending their own life get through the crisis and live a meaningful and contributing life. Having some knowledge on how to support someone living with suicidal thoughts can help them to get the support they need.

Act on observations

There are a number of risk factors or warning signs that might indicate a person is thinking about suicide. But if you know the person well, it may also be a general sense that ‘something is not quite right’ and you’ve noticed significant changes in them.

Ask yourself:

  • What is making you worry?
  • Has their behaviour changed?
  • Are they having difficulty concentrating or motivating themselves to get through the workday?
  • Have they withdrawn from family, friends or colleagues?
  • Are they talking about being a burden on others or directly talked about suicide?
  • It is important to trust your gut instinct and act on what you have seen or heard.
  • Start the conversation and ask directly about suicide
  • It can be hard to start a conversation with someone you are worried about, but it is critical.

It is better to reach out than avoid the person for fear of getting the conversation wrong. If you feel uncertain if they may be at risk, ask the question directly, ‘Are you having thoughts about suicide?’ and be prepared for the answer.

Experts generally agree that asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is unlikely to make the situation worse or ‘put ideas in their head’ which is a common concern for people wanting to reach out.

Some possible ways to say this include:

  • ’I’ve noticed… (state specific observations) and am worried about how you are, and wondering if you have been thinking about suicide?’
  • ‘How have you been feeling lately? You seem to be really withdrawn and I’m worried that things are so bad that you are thinking about taking your life.’

Listen without trying to fix

Make the person feel comfortable by listening without judgement or criticism, and don’t try to ‘fix’ the problem or talk them out of suicide. Just listen.

It is important to let the person express their feelings without interruption. They need an opportunity to talk about how they are feeling and may be relieved to be able to do so.

Regardless of what the person discloses, you should take them seriously and acknowledge the reasons the person has these thoughts. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you think the issue is serious, it is what the person thinks that is most important.

Encourage the person to take the next step

Ensure they are safe for now and talk to the person about who else to involve. You can assist by connecting them with other supports and services. You might support them to:

  • make an appointment with their GP
  • tell another trusted person what has been going on
  • call a helpline for them and get them to talk to someone else straight away.

In the event that you are concerned about the person’s safety or think they may be at imminent risk (that is, they might take their life soon) then contact emergency services immediately and tell them what you know. Stay with the person or ensure someone else is with the person until support arrives.

Check back in

It is important to check back in with the person. That may be the following day, or each week. Make a diary appointment for you to call or check-in if it is not someone that you see every day. It can help the person to know that others are there to support them.

Look after yourself

Be kind to yourself. It can be draining talking to someone about suicide and supporting them. Make sure you check your own responses and get help if you need it. It can be good to talk it through with someone you trust or call a 24/7 helpline to talk through your response if you need to.

This story is sponsored by Ahead for Business. 2020 was one of the most stressful years on record for business owners, their managers, employees and families. If you or someone close to you is experiencing challenging emotions, please visit aheadforbusiness.org.au The site contains practical strategies and tools to assist people to regulate their feelings, and also provides access to a range of mental health resources.

Ahead for Business is an initiative of Everymind and funded by the Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

If you are in need of support for your mental health, services are available 24/7:

Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467