One of the great myths of suicide is that you shouldn’t talk about it with someone (particularly younger people) because doing so may somehow “implant” the idea of killing oneself into someone’s head. That’s categorically, unquestionably not true, and I wanted to take a moment to discuss the idea.
The idea that we can unintentionally encourage suicide by discussing it is a frightening prospect because it leaves us powerless. One of the things that many mental health advocates say (and this certainly includes me!) is that we must discuss suicide and mental health. However, there is a persistent fear that discussing suicide may cause someone to consider attempting the act.
There’s good news though: It’s just not true.
There is ample evidence to back up the notion that discussion of suicide doesn’t increase suicidal ideation or attempts; indeed, thankfully, the opposite is true. According to a 2014 review on just this subject:
None [of the studies reviewed] found a statistically significant increase in suicidal ideation among participants asked about suicidal thoughts. Our findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce, rather than increase suicidal ideation, and may lead to improvements in mental health in treatment-seeking populations. Recurring ethical concerns about asking about suicidality could be relaxed to encourage and improve research into suicidal ideation and related behaviours without negatively affecting the well-being of participants.
This is great news, particularly for anti-suicide and mental health programs, as it means that you can talk about suicide without supposedly putting the idea of suicide into someone’s head.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that suicide and mental health can just be discussed in a willy-nilly sort of way; there must be specific guidelines to these conversations.
According to this article from Psychology Today, these conversations can range from casual to serious. Addressing the issue is important, but it doesn’t have to be done in an ultra-serious way. Asking your child about high-profile suicides in the news, asking their thoughts, inquiring about their feelings and state of mind – these are all positive ways of addressing the subject.
The article also does a good job of explaining what to do if someone you know or love says that they have had thoughts of suicide. It notes that many of us have had those thoughts at some point, and that isn’t inherently dangerous. What is dangerous is if these thoughts are persistent, overwhelming or come with specific plans. That’s when more action may be needed.
So, the summary is this: Talk about suicide with your children or others you care about. Do so in a way that is factual and avoids glamourizing the issue, but in a caring and supportive way. This will not encourage the idea of suicide – indeed, it will help prevent it.
It’s important that we have these conversations with people we love, and do so without fear of “implanting” the idea of suicide. This goes for schools, parents – really, all of us.