Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and as so many talk of ‘raising awareness’ as the saying goes nowadays, I’d like to talk a little about communicating with a person experiencing suicidal thoughts. Perhaps a good place to start is in understanding risk factors for suicide and recognising the sometimes subtle warning signs.
Each and every suicide is a tragedy, and one which leaves unanswered questions. Most often, suicidal thoughts develop from deep feelings of hopelessness and an inability to cope with certain challenges in our lives. From this, a belief that taking our own life is the only possible or most simple solution to our problems can grow. A great pity of course is that those very challenges are often temporary in nature. A permanent solution – suicide – is applied to what in essence is a temporary problem. Indeed, it can be seen that most people who survive suicide attempts go on afterwards to live full and most rewarding lives.
Arguably, the most prevalent risk factor for suicide is that of depression but there are many others. These diverse factors include experiencing chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychiatric disorders, suicide in the family, substance abuse and not least, a previous suicide attempt. Impulsive thoughts, particularly in the young, can play a role too.
If a person is felt to be at risk due to any of the above they may exhibit behaviour such as mood changes – even to the extent of a sudden and unexpected upbeat mood. They may alternatively display completely new behaviours. These behaviours can indicate a person who is actively suicidal.
A common myth about suicide is that those who ‘talk about it are not the ones who do it’. This is a fallacy. Whether people talk about it or not has no true bearing on the likelihood of them completing a suicide.
People with suicide ideation will commonly talk of not wanting to be a burden to others in their lives, of having nothing to live for or not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. They may talk of feeling trapped in some way or of their unbearable pain, whether physical or emotional pain. These types of words can indicate a person who is contemplating taking their own life.
Talking To A Suicidal Person
Here we encounter another great myth about suicide, the notion that talking to someone about their suicidal thoughts is somehow encouraging them to carry out the act. In these situations, it is important to begin a dialogue, to initiate a conversation about the subject. The conversation can include discussion about sources of help and assistance such as attending the GP or a therapist. It is wise to identify a help line such as The Samaritans and to keep that number in their phone or wallet/purse. An agreement can be made to follow up these actions with a future chat in which progress can be reported and reviewed.
I feel it’s better to be fairly direct with a person by asking similar to the following questions:
- How are you coping with your problems?
- Are you thinking about dying or hurting yourself?
- Have you made any plans to take your own life?
The latter – making the distinction between a person experiencing suicidal thoughts and one who is actually making the plans to do it is of high importance. This is not only for the helper/listener but also for the person themselves in understanding and clarifying their own situation a little better.
Samaritans: Freecall. 116 123 (24 hours) E. firstname.lastname@example.org (response: 24 hours)