What you shouldn't say to someone who is suicidal
Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash

Millions of individuals are affected by suicide, i.e. suicide claims more than 47,000 lives each year. It is the tenth leading cause of death. On average, 130 people die by suicide each day, and many more attempt it. It is estimated 1.3 million survive each year — including people like me. I am one in a million. I have survived suicide. Twice. And while I am #blessed with an amazing network of friends, family members, and peers, even I have received some cringeworthy advice. I've heard things which would make you recoil in shock and cause your head to spin. Why? Because suicide is complicated matter and it's hard to know what to say. Finding the right words can be tough.

Of course, when someone you care about is hurting, it's natural to want to help. Offering wisdom and advice is usually done empathetically, and with good intentions in mind. However, some words aren't the best — especially if you don't understand suicidal ideations and thoughts.



"Discovering that someone you know and care about wants to end their life is an unusual and uncomfortable situation," a paper from Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health explains. "Whether this news comes as a shock or is something the person has said before, it is a pivotal moment in your relationship. What you say next can make a big difference." It can change and even save their life. For that reason, you want to move forward thoughtfully and intentionally. The topic shouldn't be avoided, but it should be handled with care.

"If you think that someone may be feeling suicidal, [you can and should] encourage them to talk about how they are feeling," an article by Rethink Mental Illness explains. "You may feel uncomfortable talking about suicidal feelings. You may not know what to say." But a little empathy goes a long way. Plus, in most cases, saying something is better than saying nothing. Asking them how they are doing may seem like the smallest thing, but it can mean everything to someone else.

Here are eight things you shouldn't say to someone who's suicidal — and what you can say instead.

What's wrong with you?

Many of us are shocked to discover our loved ones have contemplated (or are contemplating) suicide. It's a hard pill to swallow. The very mention of suicide is scary — and it hurts. But while, instinctually, you may want to ask "why" or say something like "what's wrong with you" you should avoid using accusatory language and/or speaking in a judgemental tone.

What to say instead: That must be scary. I'm sorry you've been feeling so alone.

It's not that bad.

Many suicidal individuals live good lives. Happy lives. They have great jobs, and loving families. But suicide does not discriminate. Stressors and mental illness knows no bounds, and when someone is feeling hopeless and helpless hearing their struggles aren't "that bad" invalidates their experience and minimizes their pain.

What to say instead: That sounds awful. Would you like to tell me more about it?

But you have so much to live for.

Much like "it's not that bad," saying "but you have so much to live for" is dismissive. It also shows a profound lack of understanding — about mental illness and suicide —as the suicidal person may be experiencing pain which is so great that it overshadows all other aspects of their life.

What to say instead: You mean so much to me.

Be grateful for what you have.

Practicing gratitude is great. After all, doing so can help put life in perspective. But while gratitude can lift your mood, it can also make you feel worse — especially when "what you have" isn't enough to "snap" you out of a depression or escape suicidal thoughts.

What to say instead: I'm sorry you're struggling so much. Can I sit with you?

Cheer up, or man up.

Saying things like "man up," "suck it up" and/or "cheer up" aren't just dismissive, they are disrespectful and show a complete lack of understanding of how things like mental illness and suicidal thoughts work.

What to say instead: It must be so hard to feel so alone. What can I do to help?

You're not going to do anything stupid, are you?

While you may not mean it this way, referring to one's suicidal thoughts as stupid implies they are stupid, reinforcing negative self-talk and further diminishing their self-esteem. It also perpetuates the notion that the suicidal individual is incompetent, leaving them feeling like they have failed one more time.

What to Say Instead: I'm worried about you. Do you want to talk about your feelings?

It will get better.

This sentiment may seem harmless — after all, you are encouraging the suicidal individual and instilling hope — but saying "it will get better" can be problematic because you don't know how and/or if their situation will change. And if things don't get better? This can make the suicidal person feel even more helpless, hopeless, and alone.

What to say instead: I'm here for you. You don't have to go through this alone.

Stay strong.

Suicide affects millions, regadless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, or creed. It also affects "strong" individuals, i.e. experiencing suicidal thoughts does not make one weak or mean they are not "fighting." But saying "stay strong" implies the individual is not doing enough. It implies there is a defect of character or that the suicidal thoughts are somehow their fault.

What to say instead: There is hope. Let me help you.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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The answer lies in Girls Inc., a national nonprofit serving girls ages 5-18 in more than 350 cities across North America. Since first forming in 1864 to serve girls and young women who were experiencing upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil War, they've been on a mission to inspire girls to kick butt and step into leadership roles — today and in the future.

This is why Macy's has committed to partnering with Girls Inc. and making it easy to support their mission. In a national campaign running throughout September 2021, customers can round up their in-store purchases to the nearest dollar or donate online to support Girls Inc. and empower girls throughout the country.


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In 2020, Macy's helped raise $1.3 million in support of their STEM and college and career readiness programming for more than 26,000 girls. In fact, according to a recent study, Girls Inc. girls are significantly more likely than their peers to enjoy math and science, to be interested in STEM careers, and to perform better on standardized math tests.

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