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Suicidal feelings do not have to end in suicide. We need to smash the stigma and talk through the taboo.
Suicide is the biggest killer of young people – male and female – aged under 35 in the UK. Yet suicide is a taboo subject. Stigma promotes silence, which is killing young people.
Until 1961, suicide was a crime in the UK – those who had attempted suicide before this time and the families of those who had died by suicide could be prosecuted. As a nation, we are now working towards a suicide-safer community, which does not judge, or view suicide as a sin. We have now updated our language, avoiding terms such as ‘committed suicide’, however our coroners persist to use criminal court proceedings where suicide is involved. PAPYRUS continue to campaign for a change.
Talking about our fears and feelings is difficult - even to those we know love and care about us. This can prevent other people from recognising distress and being able to help in a crisis. Words are often totally inadequate to convey the amount of pain a person may be suffering. It is easy to understand that someone is hurting if they have been badly injured or are physically ill. Emotional pain cannot be seen, but it can be just as unbearable.
Asking about suicide can also have an effect on the person asking - you may be asking a friend or family member, which can be distressing and you might find the answer painful and hard to comprehend. But it is vital that you ask: ‘have you thought of suicide?’ This communicates that you there to support them and that it is OK for your friend or family member to share their thoughts about suicide. You can reassure that there are services and people to support them and that you can help.
The more we talk about suicide openly the sooner we reduce the fear and stigma that surrounds it.
Everyone has a role to play in preventing young suicide. Only by asking about suicide can you encourage young people to speak openly about how they are feeling. But how do you ask someone about suicide?
The first step is to recognise that somebody may be at risk. There is no definitive guide on how to know if somebody is thinking about suicide because anybody can be at risk. However there are some things you can look out for.
Often people thinking about suicide will have experienced a stressful event associated with a feeling of loss. Events have different meanings and values to each person; always keep an open mind when hearing what is causing someone’s distress, and avoid making assumptions about how they may feel.
Unwittingly, people thinking about suicide give ‘invitations’, which we need to learn to recognise. In other words they are inviting us to ask them about suicide.
These may manifest themselves as changes in behaviour (self-harm, giving away possessions), the words they use (“I wish I wasn’t here”, “It doesn’t matter anymore”), physical indicators (sleep disturbance, weight loss), or they may display overwhelming feelings of anger, hopelessness, loneliness, or a sense of being ‘worthless’. Almost anything could be an invitation and it is always worth trusting your intuition. If you have an uneasy feeling something is not ok, use this to explore suicide with the person you are concerned about.
When asking about suicide it is important to do so clearly and directly, leaving no room for uncertainty. This can seem daunting and even scary, but the person needs you to ask about suicide, so they can share how they feel.
Asking ambiguous questions, such as “are you thinking about hurting yourself” may result in an ambiguous answer. By using the word suicide you are telling the young person that it is OK to talk openly about their thoughts of suicide with you.
Asking leading questions such as “You’re not thinking of doing something silly/stupid are you?” may send the message you will judge them if they are thinking of suicide and result in an dishonest answer.
Say “Are you thinking about suicide?” or “Are you thinking about ending your life?”, or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
Allow the young person time to answer. If they say ‘YES… I have been having suicidal thoughts’, REASSURE them that they have done the right thing by telling you. LISTEN to what they say.
It is important not to jump to trying to find a solution to what is causing the young person distress. Listening in a non-judgemental way and showing you are trying to understand what things are like for them are the most important things you can do. Showing them that you care and want to give them a chance to share what they are going through is so important. Do not make light of what they say and don’t try to change the subject .Just listen. Reassure them that you can look for support together, if they feel unable to do it alone.
If they have already taken steps to take their own life, it is important to either call 999 to get them emergency medical help or take them straight to A&E.
If they say ‘NO, I’m not thinking about suicide’, then they know that you are a safe person to come to if they think of suicide in the future. Many people worry that asking about suicide might put the idea into a person’s head, or offend or anger them in some way, however research indicates that asking does not increase the risk.
It is also unlikely that a person will be angry or offended, but relieved you have invited them to talk about how they are feeling. Many young people feel they are a burden or undeserving of support or will not be taken seriously. By asking the question, you are showing that you are ready to listen and will help them to access support. Not asking is too great a risk to take.
And you could save a young life.
Want help to kick off a life-saving conversation about suicide? Download our Conversation Starters
For confidential advice and support on how to help a person at risk, or if you are thinking about suicide, speak with our professional advisors at
HOPELineUK on 0800 068 4141, text 07786 209 697 or email firstname.lastname@example.org