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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Pugle

What Not to Say to Someone With Suicidal Thinking

Updated: Apr 15

This post is adapted from Mad Maid podcast Episode 3: Dancing With the ‘S’ Word: What Not to Say to Someone With Suicidal Thinking by Michelle Pugle

If you are in crisis, please call the suicide hotline in Canada at 1.833.456.4566 or text 45645.

Age eleven is significant for me because it holds my first memories of actively suicidal behaviour and my first prescription for antidepressants. Age eleven is when treatment for major depressive disorder began.

It is still ongoing.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been offered a lot of seemingly well-meaning advice from medical professionals, parents, and friends. These words of wisdom are packaged in platitudes rather than experience or in ideals and hopes rather than reality. A lot of it (the unfortunate mass majority of it) is not trauma-informed and is ableist.

Trauma-informed means it comes from a perspective that integrates how past traumatic events influence and contribute to current struggles, challenges, or barriers to holistic functionality. It sees trauma as intertwined with other risk factors including a person’s biology and genetics.

Ableism is seeing the world through the lens of a categorically able-bodied person. It is an erasure of lived experiences and it sets the world up in such a way that only certain persons excel. It creates a roadmap for life based on a single type of vehicle speed, power, and durability and it asks us all to race, whether we have the equipment necessary to compete or not. It never asks how we can adjust the map, tools, or way of the game. After all, some people are still crossing the finish line…

Anyways, since we live in a society that doesn’t yet talk openly about the “S” word or death for that matter, we are often missing the mark in these conversations. What’s worse, we are often contributing to further pain and anguish in people who need support and understanding.

Here are some real examples of things people have said to me over the decades. I will make note of whether or not the person was a doctor, therapist, or loved one but to protect people’s identities, I’ll be avoiding any more specific details.

Without further ado, here are some things that we should just really stop saying to people who experience suicidal thinking.

1. Things could be a lot worse.

Yeah, we know. Thanks for the reminder.

2. You have nothing to be sad about.

This is just often not the case and even if it were, that’s literally confirming how depression works: You don’t need a core reason or to know the core reason to experience deep grief, guilt, and anguish.

Also, saying this may just encourage us to find reasons to actually justify feelings we already had.

3. Everyone feels like this.

This one is really dangerous. One time, I was standing on a balcony bawling my eyes out and wanting to climb over the edge and just drop myself into the traffic below and my lover came outside and asked if someone had died. I said no, apologized, and explained I was dealing with suicidal thinking.

“What, do you want to jump? Everyone feels like that."

No, actually, they don’t.

If you feel this way, please consider seeking support for your own mental wellbeing. While some fleeting thoughts of “oh if I fell I wouldn’t care,” can be signs of early depression, feeling the desire to actually jump and cause physical harm is different. Telling someone it’s normal only speaks to the pervasiveness of mental health challenges and how when someone doesn’t get support, it can lead to others not getting support, too.

4. This is really hard for me.

Sure it is, but as someone who loves someone with suicidal thinking, these comments are better left for other people or a caregiver support group.

Telling someone with suicidal thinking that their experience is traumatic, stressful, or “hard on you” is an admission to the person that they truly are the burden they feel they are. While you say this to connect, or to guilt them into changing, you’re really only confirming what they already feel: This is too much for them and everyone involved. If you feel overwhelmed with loving someone with suicidal thinking, do not tell them. Seek support for yourself outside this relationship to protect their mind. For example, I have someone in my life who brings up the fact they “checked on me to see if I was breathing” periodically throughout my preteens…this is not used to confirm concern, but to assert they have been affected by this, too. For the record, I’m sorry you lost sleep as a parent, or that you felt XYZ, but that’s not another thing I should have to carry (you were literally just doing the bare minimum here). If you needed support, you should have asked - as I did. You were supposed to be our voice and my advocate.

5. I never know what to say because I’m scared to set you off.

Bottom line, if you’re scared what you say to your child could make their suicidal thinking or self-harming behaviours worse, seek professional support from a mental health professional, a trained mental health first aider, a suicide prevention speaker, and keep listening to lists like this.

There are ways to approach these very difficult topics with compassion and care rather than fear and frustration.

6. Give up the idea that children use the “S” word to get what they want or to manipulate people.

They are asking for help, support, and yes, this includes attention. Please give it to them and remind them they are not alone.

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