How to Talk About Suicide, Without the Stigma
Every week, 125 people in the UK take their own lives; 75% of them are male.
These sobering stats from The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) present an unavoidable truth: that suicide is still so marred by stigma, the vast majority of us aren’t comfortable enough to address it, or confident enough to ask a loved one that most difficult of questions.
Are you contemplating suicide?
We might think it, worry about it, wish it away — but how many of us are brave enough to utter the words themselves? Even as a writer who spends her days penning pieces about mental health, when it comes to the fear I’ve long had for one of my own family members, I’ve never been quite brave enough. And that needs to change.
Talking About Suicide Isn’t Harmful
It can be incredibly difficult to know what to say to someone when they’re struggling with their mental health — no matter how close your relationship, or how much first-hand experience you have of mental illness. But there are ways to reach those who are struggling.
The challenge is in helping people to see that there are alternatives to ending their life.
Earlier this year, TV and radio presenter Roman Kemp made a powerful documentary exploring the UK’s mental health and suicide crisis. During Our Silent Emergency, Kemp visited Rory O’Connor, author of When It Is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It, who talks about the harmful misconception that having a conversation about suicide could ‘plant the idea’.
“In my experience, as long as we ask the question sensitively and respond with compassion, we will not do any harm. Indeed, often the person feels an incredible sense of relief that someone has noticed that they are struggling.”
“If you are concerned about a friend’s or a family member’s wellbeing, I’d really encourage you to ask someone directly about suicide. This is especially important if they are talking about feeling trapped, defeated or a burden to others — as these are warning signs for suicide.”
Professor O’Connor, who is also Director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory, has developed a six-step safety plan for people to follow when they feel at risk of suicide. The plan — which was covered in Kemp’s BBC documentary — is designed to help identify the warning signs of suicide, and outline techniques that can be used in a crisis.
How to Start a Conversation About Suicide
Asking a direct question about suicidal thoughts and tendencies may feel uncomfortable — intrusive even — but many experts in the field agree that a direct approach is the most effective way to open up the conversation, and tackle the stigma that still surrounds suicide.
Here are some things to consider:
- Always ask twice. We’re so conditioned to answer a “how are you?” with a “fine thanks”, that the question has lost all sense of power; asking again — “how are you really? Or, as we ask at FormScore, how are you today? — is far harder to ignore.
- If you’re concerned about anyone in your life, don’t be afraid to ask the question: “are you feeling suicidal?” Ask sensitively, and with understanding — but try to leave your fear at the door.
- If someone admits to feeling suicidal, it’s important not to show shock, disbelief, or to try and minimise their feelings. Acknowledging and validating their pain without judgement can be incredibly powerful.
- The conversation shouldn’t be about trying to ‘fix’ someone, or solve their problems. The most valuable thing you can do is to listen with understanding, and show genuine compassion.
- If someone does confide in you about having suicidal thoughts, ask if they’re able to keep themselves safe, and encourage them to seek help from a local mental health service, a mental health charity, such as CALM, or to contact their GP or emergency services.
- If you’re worried about someone and can get to them physically, then do so; if not, alert another friend or family member in their area who can
- If you do believe they’re at immediate risk of suicide, don’t hesitate to contact the emergency services.
- Remind the people in your life that if they’re ever in a dark place, you’re always at the end of the phone — no matter the time, or the reason. There is always HOPE.
If someone is entertaining suicidal thoughts, they may encounter a sense of shame; helping to destigmatise suicide through open and direct conversation, and taking steps to make them feel valued and connected, can be incredibly powerful. You can do this by helping them to make a plan of action, or by setting some really simple goals for the future.
The Warning Signs of Suicidal Thoughts
If you don’t know what to look out for, The National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) has put together a list of potential warning signs that someone may be feeling suicidal:
- A change in routine, such as sleeping or eating less than normal
- Lacking energy or appearing particularly tired
- Drinking, smoking or using drugs more than usual
- Finding it hard to cope with everyday things
- Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
- Becoming withdrawn from friends and family
- Not wanting to talk
- Appearing more tearful
- Appearing restless, agitated, nervous, irritable
- Putting themselves down in a serious or jokey way, for example ‘no one loves me’ or ’I’m a waste of space’
- Losing interest in their appearance, or not liking or taking care of themselves
Some of the most common warning signs of suicidal thoughts do mirror many other mental illnesses, which is why it’s so important to have the conversation.
Getting Help if You’re Feeling Suicidal, or Worried About Someone Who Might Be
People don’t always find it easy to open up about their mental health — particularly when they’re in their deepest, darkest place. That’s why the FormScore app is so vital: having a community of users who can check-in when your score drops makes it easier to get the conversation started.
When someone logs a score of 4 or below, their friends in the FormScore app receive a nudge to check-in on them. In the newer version of the app, a score of 2 or below triggers a video with guidance on what to do when you’re feeling extremely low.
If you’re using FormScore for business, admins will receive a notification when someone logs a score of 2 or below; this is anonymous, but does specify by team — allowing you to reach out to the team as a whole, and remind them of the help and support available to them.