If you’re supporting someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, it can be difficult to know what to say.
You may not be sure how to help, and whether you should take talk of suicide seriously, or if telling other people about it might make the situation worse.
In the UK, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women (four times in Ireland), and the Samaritans report that the highest suicide rate is between men aged 45 to 49 (55-64-year-old men in ROI).
That being said, mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and regardless of race, age, gender or ethnicity, anyone can struggle with suicidal thoughts.
Overwhelming feelings to end your own life have a wide range of possible causes and they can be a symptom of an existing mental health problem or a sudden episode of mental distress.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, experts share their advice on how best to support a loved one through a difficult patch, and encourage them to access the help they need.
1. Avoid judgement
“If you’re concerned about a loved one who may be suicidal, the first and most important thing you can do for them is to be non-judgemental,” says Simon Shattock, family and couple psychotherapist at mental health partnership Clinical Partners.
While you may not be able to relate to their pain, Shattock says its important to make them feel heard and understood.
“Provide validation and acknowledgement of their suicidal feelings. You may not agree with them, but listening in a sympathetic and caring way is one of the most helpful things you can do.”
2. Take suicidal thoughts seriously
Not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it.
However, if someone talks to you about methods of suicide, or makes it clear that they have plans to take their own life, it’s important not to brush it off.
“Take any hint of suicidal behaviour seriously,” says Javier Ferreiro-Pisos, a consultant psychiatrist at Clinical Partners.
“It can feel like a huge responsibility to provide advice, but just remember that this is the job of a healthcare professional. The best thing you can do initially is to buy time by simply letting the person blow off steam and express how they feel in a safe space. ”
3. Try to assure them that these feelings are temporary
In many cases, suicide can be prevented, and with the right support and treatment, people can make a full recovery.
“Try to demonstrate that there is hope and help available,” says Ferreiro-Pisos.
“Depressive episodes have treatment and financial problems can be solved. If the person has been suicidal before and overcame the crisis, remind them of how the current situation does not look as definitive as it seems.”
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
It can feel invasive to ask someone about their feelings, but experts say that is better to address the person’s thoughts and fears directly, rather than avoiding the issue.
“Speak openly and clearly about the situation with the person you are concerned about,” says Ferreiro-Pisos. “Don’t be afraid of asking ‘how’ and ‘when’.
“Many people feel wary of asking these kinds of questions in case it triggers further thoughts of harm, but in reality, this information could be vital, as you could learn about the method, time-frame and precipitating factors.”
He continues: “This way, you’ll know about the intensity of the suicidal ideation and whether it is more appropriate to arrange for them to see their GP, call a crisis line for advice, take the person to A&E if they consent, or whether to call the emergency services for immediate help.”
5. Point them in the direction of help
You can support someone through suicidal thoughts by helping them to think about other options to deal with their feelings.
“Make sure they can access support, either through the Samaritans and/or their GP quickly,” says Shattock.
“Getting professional help early can reduce the risk of harm. It can feel like a difficult conversation to have initially, but speaking openly and directly can be a huge relief to the person concerned.”
The bottom line is that in many cases, suicide is preventable, and people who receive support from friends and family, and who have access to mental health services, are less likely to act on their impulses.
If you’re concerned about someone you know, help and support is available 24/7 from the Samaritans‘ free helpline, which you can contact on 116 123.