We have to talk about suicide. No, really. We need to talk about it.

There’s a myth that asking someone about suicidal feelings can increase their risk, as if we might plant the idea in their head. On the contrary, the most vital tool we have for suicide prevention is open dialogue. Research has proven it.

What the Research Shows

In the past, many people worried that asking someone about suicidal feelings would make that person more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors. A 2008 study published in Mental Health and Family Magazine found that at that time, 36 percent of general medical practitioners believed “exposure to questions or information about suicidal behavior could increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts or acts.” The reluctance to talk about it meant that up to 75 percent of patients in the United States were not routinely asked if they were having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, even if (and especially if) they were considered at high risk of suicide.

But were those assumptions right? Can talking about suicide give someone suicidal ideation?

A wave of studies in the early 2000s (covering a range of communities and risk factors) found there was no significant increase in suicidal ideation after talking about suicide. One particular study published by the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine in 2012 involved the participation of 14,372 people. In the sample, 13.2 percent of participants had attempted suicide or seriously considered it, and one-third reported being in moderate to high psychological distress at the time of the study. Yet after being asked about suicidal ideation, only about three percent reported talking about suicide as a negative experience.

Also of interest, participants who had attempted suicide or were experiencing high psychological distress were three times more likely to self-reflect and think about their lives, even though it was uncomfortable to do so. The most interesting impact of the study on participants was this: By talking about suicide, some chose to seek help.

What Happens If We Do (or Don’t) Talk About Suicide?

We know mental health problems are stigmatized in many cultures. That stigma is even more layered in the military community with some active-duty members worried about the impact to their job or clearance. Stigma is the enemy in suicide prevention because it can lead to social exclusion, isolation, and reluctance to seek help. Behind every statistic is a real person who may be struggling with emotional pain, self-hate, and feelings of despair. When we don’t talk about suicide or dismiss the conversation, we add shame to that list and discourage people from seeking help.

On the other hand, by speaking openly and without judgment about suicide, we dismantle the stigma and make space for people to share their experiences. It allows us to surface warning signs so we can see the need for support. Open conversation validates feelings so that people who are struggling can be reassured in seeking help.

We can all do our part by speaking out loud about suicide (not in a whisper), even in conversations where we don’t think anyone is at risk. When we talk openly about suicide, whether it’s our own feelings, with someone in crisis, survivors or bereaved loved ones, in social circles, or with our kids, we are advocating for systemic change that can lead to better resources and support, and a culture where mental health struggles are met with compassion and understanding.

Read “What to Do if Someone Says They’re Suicidal” and “How to Talk About Suicide” for more tips.

Are you concerned about a service member or veteran? Ask them how they are doing, ask directly if they are having thoughts of suicide, and offer your support. We welcome U.S. veterans and service members as well as concerned loved ones to use our Get Help form to get connected to support. Stop Soldier Suicide offers suicide prevention, virtual mental health counseling, and safety planning 100% free to U.S. veterans and service members.