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How to talk to someone you think is at risk of suicide

Two people talking in a coffee shop
If you're unsure, talk to them.

If you think someone is thinking of harming themselves, or if you’re worried about someone, the best way to find out what's really going on with them is to ask them.

That might seem awkward or uncomfortable to do, but simply letting them know you care can make a huge difference.  

More than 600 Queenslanders die by suicide on average each year. It is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. Suicide has a devastating impact on families, friends and communities.

Suicidal thoughts can be an emergency

Suicidal thoughts can be an emergency: if the person says they no longer want to live, says they want to die, uses the word suicide repeatedly, is researching suicide methods, or has a plan, it is an emergency.

If someone has expressed one or more of these thoughts, be calm and reassuring, make sure they’re safe, and take them to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible. Or, call Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. Stay with them until the ambulance arrives.

Talking to someone about suicide doesn’t give them the idea or raise the risk

If you’re worried about a friend, colleague or relative, don't be afraid to ask. Asking someone about suicide or suicidal thoughts won't give them the idea, or make them act on it. Giving them the opportunity to talk may reduce their risk of suicide.

Talking openly also helps reduce the stigma around talking about suicide and mental health in general, making it easier for everyone to talk about them more openly and honestly.

Not an emergency? But how do you know?

What if they haven't expressed suicidal thoughts or intentions, but you've noticed a change in their demeanour, or behaviour, or it's just more of a hunch that you have?

Talk to them as soon as you can.

You may feel awkward about asking someone about something so intimate, especially if your relationship is less personal, as with a work mate or neighbour. How do you have that conversation?

It can be as simple as starting off by asking, 'Hey, let's go and get a coffee.' 'How's it going?' 'What's up?' 'RU OK?'

It doesn’t matter if you do it face to face, by phone, online, on social media, or in an email, but however you approach it, be respectful and considerate of their privacy.

If you can, face to face is excellent, as it may not be words, it may just be company, empathy, or encouragement to act and seek help, that they need.

You could invite them somewhere nice, do an activity that you both enjoy, play a sport, go for a walk, sit on the beach.

You don't always need to offer advice, and you don’t need to be an expert to help them. Sometimes just being a receptive and respectful listener in silence can encourage someone to talk about how they are feeling. Talking it through can make it easier for them to see the situation they find themselves in more clearly, and see the need to get help.

Hands with a note that says help

Do they need professional help?

You can help a person think about whether they need professional help:

  • Have they been feeling sad, down, angry, depressed, numb or generally ‘not themselves’ all the time, for two weeks or more?
  • Has the way they’re feeling affected their ability to cope at work, school or in their relationships?

If they have one or more of these signs, they should see their GP, or call a helpline like beyondblue or Lifeline. If it’s an emergency and someone’s life is in danger, always call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance.

Look after yourself, too

Asking someone about suicide and supporting them to get help can be stressful. Take care of yourself by taking time out, being with people you can talk to about how you’re doing, like family and friends, and doing things that you enjoy. Mental health professionals and helplines are there for carers, too.

Two friends on a waterside bench talking

Further information:

There are many resources available to help you help someone else (and yourself).

beyondblue has lots of information and resources about starting conversations about suicide and mental health. You can also call their support service on 1300 22 4636, or talk with someone online or by email if you want help, have any questions, or just need to talk.

Lifeline also has a lot of information and resources, a 24-hour phone hotline 13 11 14, and a nightly online chat service.

You can also talk to your doctor about your concerns. They can advise you of available options to help your friend, or to help you, if you feel like it’s getting too much for you.

There is a comprehensive list of resources you can use on the RU OK? website: http://www.ruok.org.au

Our article ‘How to have a conversation with a mate about mental health’ discusses how men can open up conversations about mental health and reduce stigma.

Last updated: 2 November 2018