How do we talk about suicide?

This week marks National Suicide Prevention Week and Tuesday, September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day.  Since I started this blog as part of my healing after my husband’s suicide, I have made it a point to acknowledge this week every year. Last year’s post provides links to the others as well as wealth of resources.

Suicide is a difficult subject. It was difficult for me to navigate in the hours, days and weeks that followed my husband’s suicide almost five years ago. It was difficult for us to tell others; it was somehow different than telling people he had died of cancer or a sudden heart attack or in an accident. But why? Because of stigma around mental illness for sure. But seriously, why?

It was difficult for others who wanted to acknowledge our grief. What do you say to someone who has suffered this type of unimaginable loss? Even today, almost five years later, I still find that telling someone that my husband died by suicide can be a bit of a conversation stopper. If you’re looking for the dos and don’ts of talking to survivors of suicide loss, here’s some spot-on recommendations from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP): How to Talk to a Suicide Loss Survivor: A #RealConvo Guide from AFSP.

I write about my experience here because I believe that to prevent suicide, we need to become more comfortable talking about it – from every perspective. When my husband died, I didn’t understand that the statistic we were now part of was extremely high and I certainly wasn’t alone – although I felt alone. I didn’t know anyone who was a survivor of suicide loss – or so I thought. When I began to talk, others did as well. I couldn’t help but think if I had know the statistics I may have better understood our risk of becoming one.

So that’s part of it. Know the statistics. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2017 suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people; suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States as there were homicides (19,510).“ ( As a means of further comparison I looked up the number of car accident fatalities for the same year. According the the National Safety Council, there were less deaths (40,327) in 2017 on the roads, than by suicide!

The other part is finding the courage to talk about mental health with our family and friends. And because people with depression and anxiety and other mental health issues often feel ashamed or embarrassed, it is up to us to make the first move. There is wonderful campaign from AFSP and the Ad Council aimed at teens and young adults: Seize the Awkward that is worth watching and sharing widely.

But what do you say or do when someone tells you that they have thought about or are seriously suicidal. A recent discussion in a Facebook Group (of highly educated, progressive, older women!) showed that most of us are clueless, have misconceptions, and still carry a lot of (perhaps subconscious) stigma with us in dealing with subject. The original poster had a friend who admitted to suicidal thoughts and she was questioning whether she should “betray the friend’s trust” and tell her husband. Suicide risk is the one area where confidentiality goes out the window! Anyone who has seen a therapist knows that when discussing confidentiality, that is the one instance that they will tell others if need be to keep you safe from harm.

On that specific subject, AFSP says, “If they ask you not to tell anyone, tell them you want to help them get the support they need – and that that may involve enlisting the help of others. Encourage them to be part of the conversation that happens in reaching out for help, and reassure them you’ll be as discreet as possible in your effort to keep them safe.”

AFSP offers the perfect guidelines from professionals, especial this piece: If Someone Tells You They’re Thinking About Suicide: A #RealConvo Guide from AFSP I am not an expert and neither are most of the people on social media. Be careful where you get your advice. AFSP, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) are the experts and have a wealth of information available on talking about mental health and suicide from a whole bunch of perspectives. I really urge everyone to become familiar with their guidelines of what to do and not do when dealing with these issues, and to be careful about making “recommendations” that may be based on your own stigmas around suicide and mental health issues.

Thank you for allowing this very important discussion to take place. Talk saves lives! 


If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential.

3 thoughts on “How do we talk about suicide?

  • September 12, 2019 at 10:32 am

    Mary: I’ve written several responses and have deleted them all. Too simplistic. Suffice to say that I admire and applaud your courage. May your honest approach, information, and guidance motivate others to understand and to act. Joan

    • September 12, 2019 at 10:20 pm

      Thank you, Joan! I hope it does too.

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