World Suicide Prevention Day: How to help if you are worried someone is having suicidal thoughts

·10-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Data published by the Office for National Statistics found that suicides in England hit a record high in 2019.

The figures found that nearly three quarters of the deaths were among men, with the most common age group affected being those aged between 50 and 54.

In response to the statistics, Dr Elizabeth Scowcroft, head of research at charity Samaritans, stated: “Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy that devastates families, friends and communities. Suicide is complex and rarely caused by one thing.”

World Suicide Prevention Day is an awareness day observed on 10 September every year.

If you are worried about a person in your life – whether they are a friend, family member or colleague – you can make it clear that you are there for them by asking them to tell you how they are feeling and by encouraging them to speak to a Samaritans volunteer.

Anne Gilchrist, a listening volunteer at the Samaritans Folkestone branch, spoke to The Independent about how people can look out for signs someone in their life is experiencing suicidal thoughts, how to start a conversation with them and actions they can take to help them find the support they need.

What are potential signs of suicidal thoughts?

“A person who has already started having suicidal thoughts can appear depressed, withdrawn and increasingly unwilling to take part in social activities,” Ms Gilchrist says.

“This can be because that person feels worthless, doesn’t want to be a burden to friends and family, or simply feels there is no point in taking part because there is no future for them.”

Ms Gilchrist explains that a person may feel suicidal due to “specific circumstances”.

“They may be struggling to cope with unbearable pain and some may actually mention wanting to die,” she states.

“Any catastrophic change in personal circumstances can cause a downward spiral in a person’s thinking; suicidal thoughts can be triggered by the loss of someone close or the loss through suicide of a friend, relative or even an acquaintance.”

Not everyone experiencing suicidal thoughts will exhibit these signs, and people who do are not always suicidal.

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If a person believes someone is exhibiting signs of suicidal thoughts, how can they start a conversation with them about it?

“Offering to listen without judging is an amazing gift – and anyone can do it. It allows the other person to verbalise what they’ve been thinking,” Ms Gilchrist states.

“Just being able to say things out loud can be immensely helpful in ordering thoughts and feelings. Sometimes fears can diminish once they are spoken about.”

The Samaritans volunteer outlines that demonstrating to a person that you “genuinely care” about their wellbeing by showing a “sincere interest” is “a good first step”.

“At Samaritans, we often start off a conversation with a very simple question – how are you feeling? The listener doesn’t need to hear about every single thing that has happened in that person’s life – the details are often not important – but by exploring how that person feels now – that initial expression of fear, anger, guilt, hopelessness, embarrassment – whatever, can supply a big clue to the state they are in,” she says.

“It’s not necessary to offer sage advice or come up with pat solutions – just listening and asking thoughtful, open questions shows you care and that often means a lot when someone feels desperately isolated and vulnerable.”

Are there any particular phrases someone would be advised to use if they don’t know where to start?

If you are unsure about how to start a conversation with a person in your life you are concerned about, there are certain phrases that you could use to demonstrate your sincere care and support, Ms Gilchrist says.

“I’m here to listen.”

“Friends sometimes find it difficult to actively listen without interrupting and offering their own stories or experiences and advice,” she explains.

“A person with suicidal thoughts may not have the capacity to process your anecdotes and apply them to their own lives – they just need someone to sit quietly and listen.”

“I won’t judge you.”

The Samaritans volunteer states that sometimes if a person is considering suicide, they may be reluctant to share their thoughts for fear that they “are too shocking to share with others”.

“They might be feeling ashamed or guilty or unable to shake off something that’s happened in their past, they need you to be calm and measured and accept them for who they are,” she says.

“I care about you – you can trust me.”

“Some people may be afraid that talking about their fears or deep concerns may make them seem weak and that others might seek to use that information to exploit them,” Ms Gilchrist states.

“You can reassure them you don’t want to gossip or spread rumours or post anything personal about them on social media.”

“Are you thinking about taking your own life?”

“Be direct,” Ms Gilchrist advises. ”It’s a way of giving someone permission to talk about the unthinkable and to get out in the open thoughts that may have been chasing round their head for the longest time.

“It’s a myth that talking about suicide makes someone more likely to take their own life. Discussing the subject openly may help throw up other options.”

Should this conversation differ depending on the age of the person in question?

Regardless of a person’s age or background, any person who is contemplating suicide “is an individual with a unique set of circumstances,” Ms Gilchrist states.

“Whatever their age or life experience they deserve to be treated with respect and consideration.”

The Samaritans volunteer emphasises the importance of practising “empathy”, whether you are “much older or much younger than the person you’re trying to help”.

“If you think there’s a danger you might talk down to or dismiss someone’s experience, which is vastly different from yours, as irrelevant or silly, take a moment to reflect on how they might be feeling,” she says. “Try to imagine what it would be like to be that person and think their disturbing thoughts.”

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What if someone is afraid of pushing the person away by talking to them about their concerns?

“A lot of friends and family who have lost someone through suicide say they wish they’d known, wish they’d been able to act in some small way to prevent it. It’s unlikely you’ll push someone away by being caring and non-judgemental,” Ms Gilchrist explains.

“It might be helpful to emphasise that – if you can – you’ll be available whenever the time is right for them to talk – that this is not a one off opportunity, but that you’ll be gently, persistently checking in with them on a regular basis just to see how they are.”

Ms Gilchrist adds that it is important not to “over-promise” when you are speaking to someone you are concerned about.

“If it’s all getting too much for you, you can suggest that they ring or email the Samaritans for extra support or if, for some reason, you’re not available,” she says.

In addition to speaking to them, what actions should a person take if they think someone they know is showing signs of suicidal thoughts?

The Samaritans helpline is available to contact every day of the year for free every hour of the day, including on bank holidays and during the Christmas period, Ms Gilchrist states.

The volunteer explains that if the person you are speaking to is in need of “specific advice” such as with regards to their finances or if they are in need of counselling or medical support, “you could offer to source contact details of useful organisations for them”.

“If they already know who they should speak to, you could offer to accompany them to an appointment or consultation, or ring to check how things went once it’s over,” she adds.

What should someone do if the person is reluctant to seek out or accept help?

“Persevere, even if they say they’re ‘fine’, follow your instincts and let them know you are still going to be there for them when they need you. This is not something they have to suffer alone. You’re not disgusted or horrified or ashamed of them,” Ms Gilchrist states.

The volunteer says that at this point, it may be a wise idea to create a “mental health team”, by gathering the contact details of “close friends and family or medical professionals you could use in an emergency”.

“You can think about making it harder for the person to harm themselves by taking away anything they might use,” she adds.

“If you think someone is in immediate and serious danger, do not leave them alone and if necessary, call an ambulance.”

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Does any of this advice change if the person has attempted suicide before?

“A person who has attempted suicide in the past might find they are not taken seriously and that a ‘failed attempt’ is somehow downplayed and classed as a ‘cry for help’,” Ms Gilchrist explains.

“Yet we know that people who do go on to kill themselves have often told someone that they do not feel life is worth living or that they have no future. Some may have actually expressed that they want to die.”

The Samaritans volunteer explains that if a person has attempted suicide in the past, this could be a “really clear signal that this person is very familiar with and struggles with suicidal thoughts on a regular basis”.

“It’s really important to take seriously anyone who is clearly thinking about ending their life or has tried to do this in the past,” she says.

What resources are there for people who are concerned about someone?

The Samaritans website has a section dedicated to advice for people wanting to offer help to someone who is feeling suicidal.

For more information, visit the webpage here.

What is the significance of 24/7 Samaritans Awareness Day?

“Samaritans offer a caring listening ear at a time when people feel alone, abandoned and unable to cope,” Ms Gilchrist says.

“It’s such a simple idea there’s a danger that in a complex world with so many messages being thrown at us from every direction the straightforwardness of the Samaritan’s service might be overlooked or undervalued – lost in the cacophony of modern life.”

The aim of 24/7 Samaritans Awareness Day is to remind people that “Samaritans is always here, always ready to listen, always ready to stand beside you whoever you are,” Ms Gilchrist says.

“Plus, it’s a great time to think about becoming a volunteer, so if you feel you’re a good listener or would like to donate or help out, it’s a spur to contact your local branch for more information,” she adds.

You can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year.

You can also contact Samaritans by emailing jo@samaritans.org. The average response time is 24 hours.

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