Six things not to say to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts

Published on September 09, 2022

I was flying home on a small commuter jet with two seats on either side of the aisle. I was by the window. A mother sat next to me and her two sons sat across the aisle. She wanted to talk, so I listened. Her life was wrapped up in the athletic success of her sons, ages ten and thirteen. They flew constantly to events, training camps, and practice sessions. 

When we were nearly home, she asked what I was working on. I told her that I was writing a book about suicide. 

She lowered her voice. “Just last week, my thirteen-year-old told me that he didn’t want to live anymore.“

“How did you respond?” I questioned. 

“I told him not to say that. Look at all the opportunities you have that other children don’t. Look at all your parents are doing for you,” she continued. 

Preparation is Essential

This mother did not intend harm to her children.  Nonetheless, her response is an example of what not to say to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. We can learn just as much from bad examples as good ones. 

As an ER doctor, I rehearsed emergency scenarios. When a life-or-death situation presented itself, I knew the drill. I had done my thinking in advance. I was prepared to act. 

Suicide is, by definition, an emergency. How you respond can be a matter of life or death. 

A Child You Know Is Thinking About Suicide

It is inevitable that at some point—and possibly even today—a young person you know is thinking about suicide. It could be your own son or daughter,  or perhaps a niece, neighbor, teammate, or school pal. It could be that jokester in your Sunday school class, the silent child in your carpool, a student leader in your youth group, or the star player on the team you help coach. Do you know what to say—and just as important, what NOT to say—to a young person struggling with suicidal thoughts?

Here are some all-too-common responses that can harm rather than help a depressed or suicidal young person:

  1. You don’t really mean that

If a loved one says “I wish I were dead” or “I can’t go on,” resist the temptation to downplay or discount their words. It’s time to tune in and gently but directly ask some difficult questions such as, “Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?” 

We live in a world of shallowness and pretense. We’re forever saying, “Have a nice one” while the real story remains hidden inside. When history looks back on us, they’ll marvel that we were the generation that smiled for a photo right before we jumped off the bridge. It’s time to get real.

  1. Don’t talk that way

Even if what your loved one says is painful to hear, your goal should be to learn how they are really doing. Be prepared to listen quietly. Bring a handkerchief and hand it to them, and make sure you have one for yourself, too. Remember, this isn’t about you or your comfort level; it is about them.

  1. Everything is going to be okay

If they are depressed or thinking about suicide, things are, by definition, not “okay.” If the person begins to cry, let them. Resist the temptation to hush them or tell them that everything will be alright. 

We often point depressed people toward the hopeful lines in Scripture, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the Bible also includes sections expressly reserved for the depressed. Consider the following verses from the Psalms in the poetic King James Version: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint…thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15). Likewise, Psalm 88 is a prayer uttered by the depressed, for the depressed. Allowing a young person to voice their pain and suffering can open a connection between them and Christ, “the man of sorrows, who is acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

  1. People have it a lot worse than you

People who are depressed may already be struggling with guilt and its cousin, shame; telling them why they should be grateful only intensifies their struggles.  Both shame and guilt can be powerful motivators to avoid sin and bad behavior, but when a loved one is ruminating on a particular event that causes shame or guilt and is not moving forward, such thoughts can be deadly. Piling it on is hurtful, not helpful.

  1. You need to pray more (or have more quiet time, or read the Bible more)

If your loved one is depressed, they may have a difficult time praying or concentrating. Actually, prayer and concentration can be difficult in the best of times. Our culture goes a million miles a second. Instead of telling them to pray more, ask if it would be okay for you to pray with them.  And instead of some vague promise to pray in the future, do it right then.

  1. I promise not to tell anyone

Never agree to keep someone’s suicide plans secret.  As Christians, we are our brothers’ (and our sisters’) keepers. Getting help for your loved one is the beginning of their road back to life and recovery.

Hope Always

There’s an old proverb in medicine that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Suicide is the one disease for which prevention is the only cure. 

Jesus told his followers that he came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. It’s time for you and me to get that message out to those who need it the most.  

Take the first step: Put the National Suicide Hotline (988) in your telephone right now and be prepared to share it.  Then download the new (free) Colson Center Hope Always series for parents and educators, and share what you learn with others. 

This article is adapted from Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life In a Culture of Suicide

———-

Scripture to lean on

Listen! The Lord’s arm is not too weak to save you, nor is his ear too deaf to hear you call. 

Isaiah 59:1

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

2 Corinthians 1:4

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;

    hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. 

If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”

    does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?

Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,

    and will he not repay man according to his work?

Proverbs 24:11-12


Consider a few extra resources: 

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Dr. Matthew Sleeth

Dr. Matthew Sleeth, the executive director of Blessed Earth, was recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders. This article is adapted from his book, Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life In a Culture of Suicide. You can find his video teaching series here at Hope Always RightNow Media. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, RELEVANT Magazine, CNN, and Christianity Today. To receive a free Hope Always Toolkit, email contact@blessedearth.org.

Read more about Dr. Matthew

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