75 Million Text Messages Were Analyzed to Find the Best Way to Ask If Someone Is Suicidal

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Asking a friend or a loved one if they are suicidal is never an easy conversation to have. You want to tread lightly and avoid pushing someone who is clearly having problems into further despair. Research actually shows that asking someone if they are suicidal will not make them any more likely to attempt to end their life, but what’s the proper way to approach this incredibly difficult subject?

Crisis Text Line, a non-profit organization that provides free crisis intervention via text messaging, analyzed the 75 million text messages they’ve received since 2013 and used artificial intelligence to find the best way to ask if someone is suicidal.

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The data showed that asking someone if they might be suicidal with “an expression of care” was most likely to lower suicidal feelings within someone texting the Crisis Text Line. If counselors use more compassionate language, the people in crisis are twice as likely to feel less suicidal than if confronted with blunt language.

Also, showing concern for a person’s safety and mental well-being was shown to be an effective method. So a counselor might say to someone who recently went through a breakup, “Sometimes when people go through a breakup, they may have thoughts of ending their life. I want to check in, have you had any of these thoughts?” That would be a better inquiry than, “Do you have suicidal thoughts?” or “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

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The research also showed that counselors offering an apology of any kind is not an effective approach to dealing with someone in crisis. Saying something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but I have to ask, are you thinking of hurting yourself?” is not helpful in making the struggling person feel any better or more at ease.

Because of the findings, the Crisis Text Line has instituted a policy of always using the “expression of care” method with every person they communicate with. While the “apology method” was shown to make people feel shamed or isolated, the caring method makes the conversation feel more normal and makes people open up more.

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Of course, there isn’t one single method that works for everyone, but if you have someone in your life you think might be suicidal, approach the subject in a loving, understanding, and empathetic way.

Let’s do our best to take care of each other.