How do you talk to your child who talks about suicide?

“Can you help me in knowing how to talk to my son when he mentions suicide as a solution to his pain?  As a Mother it is so painful to know your child would rather die than live with bipolar II.  He is 30 and just recently been diagnosed.  He is 4 years sober and doing his best to fight his feelings and thoughts. He feels his life is ruined, destroyed because he put tattoos on himself in a hypomanic state and now has permanent marks on himself that scream his illness to him.  He is on meds that he feels are not helping but it has only been 3 weeks, is talking to a therapist, and just started a support group. He isolates himself from people and family and is very, very, angry whenever I try to talk to him and understand. I fear for his life, can you help me?”

1411266_monochrome_portraitI’m so sorry that you and your son are going through this. As sad as it is, there are several things about your email that I find very hopeful. But before I respond to your question directly, let’s look at some common misconceptions about suicide that I “borrowed” from a great website on suicide prevention:

Common Misconceptions about Suicide

FALSE: People who talk about suicide won’t really do it. 
Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide threats. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,” — no matter how casually or jokingly said may indicate serious suicidal feelings.

FALSE: Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy. 
Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They must be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing, but extreme distress and emotional pain are not necessarily signs of mental illness.

FALSE: If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop them. 
Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, wavering until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die. Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.

FALSE: People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help. 
Studies of suicide victims have shown that more than half had sought medical help in the six months prior to their deaths.

FALSE: Talking about suicide may give someone the idea. 
You don’t give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true — bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Source: SAVE – Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

 Now let’s consider the dos and don’ts when trying to talk to someone who’s thinking about suicide:

When talking to a suicidal person


  • Be yourself. Let the person know you care, that he/she is not alone. The right words are often unimportant. If you are concerned, your voice and manner will show it.
  • Listen. Let the suicidal person unload despair, ventilate anger. No matter how negative the conversation seems, the fact that it exists is a positive sign.
  • Be sympathetic, non-judgmental, patient, calm, accepting. Your friend or family member is doing the right thing by talking about his/her feelings.
  • Offer hope. Reassure the person that help is available and that the suicidal feelings are temporary. Let the person know that his or her life is important to you.
  • If the person says things like, “I’m so depressed, I can’t go on,” ask the question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” You are not putting ideas in their head, you are showing that you are concerned, that you take them seriously, and that it’s OK for them to share their pain with you.

But don’t:

  • Argue with the suicidal person. Avoid saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Look on the bright side.”
  • Act shocked, lecture on the value of life, or say that suicide is wrong.
  • Promise confidentiality. Refuse to be sworn to secrecy. A life is at stake and you may need to speak to a mental health professional in order to keep the suicidal person safe. If you promise to keep your discussions secret, you may have to break your word.
  • Offer ways to fix their problems, or give advice, or make them feel like they have to justify their suicidal feelings. It is not about how bad the problem is, but how badly it’s hurting your friend or loved one.
  • Blame yourself. You can’t “fix” someone’s depression. Your loved one’s happiness, or lack thereof, is not your responsibility.

Adapted from:

What I find hopeful in your email is the fact that your son is talking. Even if it’s with anger and frustration, he is communicating with you. He is also seeking help, taking his meds, and showing responsibility by joining a support group. You do, however, have reason to fear for his life. I assume you’ve told his doctors about his talk of suicide. It’s important that they know how he’s feeling. You should not hesitate to contact them if your son threatens suicide.

Have you ever heard of ACT?

A stands for Acknowledge which means to take a suicide threat seriously and be willing to listen. It’s obvious that you’ve been doing that.

C stands for Care. Voice your concern and let the person know you care. You should also ask the person if they have a specific plan. Talking openly about suicide plans defuses the situation and can stop it in its tracks.

T stands for Treatment. As I said earlier, seek professional help. If your son should refuse to seek help you can call 1-800-273-TALK.

It really sounds like you are doing everything right by your son. I believe time and treatment will lead to recovery. Ultimately, a successful suicide leaves in its wake unfair and unquenchable guilt. No matter what happens, know that you are doing—and have done—all that you can.




If you are thinking about harming yourself, or know someone who is, we advise you to get help immediately.

You can get help by doing one of the following:

  • Call your doctor.
  • Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room to get immediate help or ask a friend or family member to help you do these things.
  • Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to talk to a trained counselor.

Make sure you or the suicidal person is not left alone. 

Thoughts? Questions? Leave your feedback here!