"Are you thinking about killing yourself?" This has been promoted as what we should say to someone who we think is suicidal to establish if indeed they are. I have been against saying this sentence for a number of reasons.
Firstly, let's clarify that this sentence is indeed what you should ask someone if you think that they are considering suicide, but only if you are a trained crisis negotiator. It is something crisis negotiators use when intervening in a suicide attempt.
Why, because it gets the person's attention. Often when people are suicidal, they have no idea what they are doing at the time, hence the reason why some will take their life without considering taking the lives of others while doing so. They are lost in their negative thoughts as part of extreme fight-or-flight.
By asking this question, despite the person obviously considering doing so, crisis negotiators will literally snap the person out of their thoughts and bring them back to their position. However, it is only ever done so as a last resort to get the persons undivided attention. And, it works.
We are then told, that should the person answer "Yes" to 'that' question, we should go on to ask them if they have made a plan yet, what is that plan, and how much preparation have they made. Are these not superfluous questions, they have already said that they are considering suicide so we therefore must take the person for help!
My concern, apart from the fact that I am aware of parents periodically asking their children 'that' question, and of one parent who does so daily, the impact on the person asking the question must also be considered.
Currently working in the rural sector where suicide is sadly still common, I know of many people who cannot bring themselves to ask 'that' question and worry about about the consequences if they do or don't ask it. It worried one person so much so that it partly contributed to himself going into depression.
A recent article, provided to me by a friend and qualified colleague, shows that although asking someone if they are thinking of killing themselves does not cause someone to do so, when harsher questions are asked, it is much less effective. - https://mashable.com/article/how-to-ask-about-suicide-crisis-text-line/
Additionally, when 'that' question is asked preceded by an apology for needing ask 'that' question, it may cause feelings of shame and isolation in the person you are trying to help.
So what should you ask? Here are some suggestions that may be helpful, organisations I have worked with are now using them;
For loved ones - "I (we) am so concerned that you might hurt yourself or something even worse. Promise me you aren't thinking of that, I love you too much and will do whatever it takes to help you."
"I care about you, I can see that you are hurting, and I want to make sure that you will talk with me if ever you have thoughts about taking your own life/suicide."
For colleagues - "Are you considering taking some drastic action like taking your own life/suicide."
"When we become overwhelmed, we sometimes have thoughts of suicide, are you having those thoughts, or perhaps had them in the past?"
For both - "Professional counselling/support does help, please let me get some support for you, we can go together if that would help."
Getting expert attention is imperative if you have any concerns that someone is thinking of committing suicide, preferably from a registered psychotherapist/psychologist.
Finally, prevention is the key. Look after yourself - be selfish to be selfless.