Let’s Talk About Suicide


I want you to stop and notice your reaction to the word “suicide.” If the word or subject makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Suicide is an uncomfortable and challenging topic. Similar to other mental health issues, suicide is shrouded in shame and stigma–both of which are dangerous. According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 34. Death by suicide is the pandemic that was silently sweeping the world for years.

And it is getting worse.

One of the most alarming outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the rise in suicide-related deaths and mental health crises. Mental health concerns were a growing epidemic in their own right prior to the pandemic, and that certainly continues to hold true today. We were an anxious, overworked, and isolated society long before we were forced to shelter in place last March. The uncertainty and stress caused by the outcomes of the pandemic have further exacerbated peoples’ feelings of isolation and anxiety. These heightened emotions have been greatly affected by the measures set up to mitigate the spread of COVID-19–primarily quarantining and social distancing. While these steps are crucial, their ramifications on mental health and suicidality cannot be ignored.

Still, with all of these truths, I have hope that we can create a world that is safer from suicide. For the past six years, I have had an in-depth look into the prevalence of suicide among teens and young adults. I am a suicide prevention educator, author, and mental health advocate. I have personally helped dozens of teens struggling with thoughts of suicide, as well as instructed their families and caregivers in techniques to help facilitate a safe environment. I’ve seen heartbreak and devastation, and I’ve also seen resilience and hope.

I believe that we can all be empowered to help someone; and with the right tools, we can do so with confidence. Don’t get me wrong: Talking about suicide is hard. Addressing suicide with someone in your life is hard. I say: better to have a hard, awkward conversation than none at all. At its heart, suicide prevention requires empathy, awareness, and curiosity. Below are some steps to help make this necessary and challenging conversation a little easier:

1. Recognize the signs:

Often, people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide will not ask for help directly. Think about how difficult it can be to ask for help with our normal, everyday things. Imagine how much more so with something as serious as suicide. While they may not ask outright, people who are suicidal often show and tell us that they are struggling with their actions, language, and emotions.

Examples of such signs can be aggressive behavior, dramatic mood swings, withdrawing from friends or family, giving away their stuff, and impulsive or dangerous behavior. It is important to note, though, that you won’t know if these are indicators of suicidal behavior or thought unless you ask them directly if suicide is related. 

2. Bring it up:

Be clear and direct in a kind and patient way. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” Being direct is not dangerous. It is the safest way that you can convey your concerns to someone in crisis. Use your actions and language to convey a sense of safety and support. Refrain from blaming, debating, or trying to solve the issue.

3. Listen:

Active listening is one of the kindest forms of attention we can offer anyone, and this is especially true if people are in crisis. Our gut response to people’s pain is to fix it, make it go away, or ignore it. What we do when we listen is give them space to speak and be heard without fear of judgement.

4. Increase their network of safety:

Help the person struggling with thoughts of suicide connect to ongoing support, such as a crisis line or mental health professional. Increasing their network of safety is a crucial part of their long term safety and health.

5. Stay in their circle:

Follow up or check in on the person struggling with thoughts of suicide. I can’t stress enough how important this is. People who are suicidal don’t want to be thought of only by their struggles. They want us to remember that they are still people too.

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Leigh Ioffe
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