Chris' tips for talking to someone who may be suicidal.Image by: Robin Boot
7 September 2023

Chris' story: Asking the question

Managing Director Minding Minds, Mental Health First Aid
Chris Stewart
3 minutes read time

Talking about dying, it's difficult. As someone facing a recent cancer diagnosis, I know how shielded I am from discussing it with others, as I’m concerned about how they’ll receive the news and what emotions it might bring about in them.

So, if that's the case with this, how difficult must it be to discuss taking your own life?

We are faced with two problems with somebody who is feeling suicidal.

The first: How do we know they are feeling that way?

The second: How do we get them to talk about it?

The reality is you will never know for sure that somebody is feeling this way, but we have hints that pinch at our gut and alarm us that there is something different with our friend or the person in front of us.

" The best way we can be sure as to whether somebody is feeling suicidal or not, is to ask "

Three years ago, I sat across the table in a coffee shop with a friend, Pete. He had lived abroad but returned after a broken relationship. He seemed withdrawn and tired, different from his normal self. There was no talk of depression. There was no talk of death, but there was a lack of talk about plans and hopes.

As someone who has worked in drug and alcohol treatment for a decade, I've asked the question a thousand times - “Are you feeling suicidal?”

I've been taught as a mental health first-aid instructor that the best way we can be sure as to whether somebody is feeling suicidal or not, is to ask. Clearly and directly.

Even though I had asked all those times before, it felt uncomfortable to ask a friend. I like to sandwich the question in three short sentences.

  1. “It sounds like you are in a lot of pain?” - Recognise you have ‘heard’ them.
  2. “Are you having thoughts of taking your own life?” - Be clear and direct to best elicit a response.
  3. “If so, it is common and treatable” - Introduce hope.

Pete had been considering it and now had a plan.

Pete will tell you that he felt a huge sense of relief within a few minutes of me asking the question, as the ‘dirty secret’ had been exposed. It was no longer something that he struggled with on a daily basis, alone and hidden in shame.

He agreed he would seek medical treatment and I ensured that he was safe for the weekend until he got that treatment.

His recovery from depression was slow, but he now lives a full and nourishing life in Scandinavia. He has a girlfriend and a young stepson and we speak honestly together about shared mental health struggles and the occasional suggestive suicidal thought. Pete accepts these thoughts are a part of depression, but are transient and manageable.

We don’t all have the answers for others, but know if your gut is saying something to you, and you’ve noticed signs in a friend that differ from usual, ask the question. It can’t hurt, but it could help.


If you, or someone you know, is feeling low, don’t hesitate to reach out for support using these local support resources.

To speak with someone immediately, call The Samaritans on 116 123 or message the Shout text line on 85258.

If you’re ever worried that someone’s life is in immediate danger, call 999 or go directly to emergency services.