Content warning - this article contains mentions of suicide.
Every year, thousands of people and organisations come together on 10 September to mark World Suicide Prevention Day under the National Suicide Prevention Alliance. As well as supporting those affected by suicide, the initiative aims to reduce suicide and self-harm.
At Shout our volunteers take conversations on a daily basis with people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation; it’s the main reason people contact our service. The impact of suicide is devastating, so it’s important that people who are experiencing these thoughts or feelings know that they’re not alone in what they’re facing and that support is available. Suicide can be prevented.
This year, we wanted to examine some of the myths that exist around suicide and give practical suggestions to help if you know someone who is struggling.
Myth one: talking about suicide will plant the thought in someone’s mind.
For someone who is feeling suicidal, the thought will be there already. By talking to them, you are opening the door for them to talk to you about their thoughts and feelings. Using the word ‘suicide’ in a conversation with someone shows them that you are comfortable to talk about the subject. It’s not going to plant the seed, but it will identify you as someone who is willing to support the person having those thoughts or feelings and provide them with a safe space to open up.
It’s also important to use the word ‘suicide’ so there’s no confusion. For example, don’t say “You're not thinking of doing something silly are you?” as it could leave the person feeling judged, rather than supported. Avoid confusion by being explicit and don’t be afraid to ask them if they’re thinking about ending their own life. Using direct language demonstrates that you’re not avoiding the possibility that they’re thinking about suicide and opens up the opportunity for people to talk.
Myth two: someone who is suicidal is doing it for attention.
When a person makes a decision to tell someone that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, it’s a big and brave step to take. If they are then told that they’re attention seeking, it automatically dismisses their experience. This could then discourage them from seeking help from anyone else. Even if you find it hard to understand, put aside your own thoughts and be there to listen and support without judgement.
Myth three: self-harm is a precursor to suicide.
There are many reasons people self-harm. While self-harm can be associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours, it doesn’t always mean it is a precursor to suicide.
Often used as a coping strategy, self-harm might be a way for people to cope with suicidal thoughts or feelings. If you’re supporting someone who is struggling with this, it’s more helpful to focus on talking to them (and, importantly, listening) about what is underlying the urge to self-harm and try to get them the help and support they deserve, should they need it.
Rather than telling the person to stop self-harming, explore alternative coping strategies or outlets that can offer them relief or distract them, for example, listening to music or watching a film, journaling, or going for a walk outside. Ask them what has worked in the past when they want to calm themselves down or distract themselves from overpowering thoughts. Most people can name the coping strategies they use when they are struggling. If not, you can help them. Just being present and open to talking and listening can be extremely helpful in calming people down so that they can think about their next steps.
Some other alternative outlets that we refer to at Shout include grounding techniques such as focusing on controlling your breathing, meditation or mindfulness activities. These can be helpful as they distract the mind, keep the body occupied and can leave people feeling more calm.
One of the most simple and most powerful ways to support someone experiencing stress or in a crisis situation is to be present, calm and to encourage them to talk, while you listen.
Myth four: all suicidal people actually want to die.
While only a small percentage of people will actually act upon their thoughts of suicide, it is still vitally important to take all people seriously when they talk about, or indicate to you in some way, that they are having thoughts of suicide or have a plan to end their life. While many people might talk about or mention suicide in an effort to get support, it is always a fluid situation, hence, referring back to myth two, important to respond appropriately, with kindness and compassion. Even though someone might be talking about suicide, the fact that they have reached out for support from you or even alluded to their thoughts, is an indicator that there is a part of them that does not want to act upon their thoughts.
At Shout, suicidal thoughts and feelings are discussed in around 39% of our conversations every day. While a small percentage will need to be referred for emergency support (around 2% on average), in the vast majority of cases our Shout Volunteers, overseen by clinical supervisors, will focus on compassionately interacting with texters so that by the end of the conversation they feel heard and understood, they are feeling a lot more calm, and they have been supported in thinking about their next steps with a plan to keep themselves safe.
If you are reading this and you have ever experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings, remember that you don’t have to deal with it by yourself. There are organisations and charities such as the Samaritans, Papyrus, Calm, Young Minds and more, that can help. If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you can always text SHOUT to 85258 and we’ll be there to support you.
Myth five: suicide is selfish and an easy way out.
When someone is at the point of suicide, it is because they believe in that moment and at that time that it is the only way of ending their pain. Being selfish is the furthest thing from what’s on their minds. In many instances it’s because they believe that they are a burden and that their families and friends would be better off without them.
While many of us will fortunately never know what this feels like, we all have times when we are struggling with challenges in our lives. While connections are vital to everyone’s health, physical and mental, they are particularly important when someone is having thoughts of suicide. Everyone needs at least one person that they know they can turn to in times of need, or knowledge of at least one organisation, such as Shout, that they can contact and be assured that they will receive a compassionate response.
Myth six: it’s impossible to tell when someone is suicidal.
While the signs someone might be suicidal aren’t always obvious, there are a few things we should be looking for. It’s important to look for any changes in behaviour. A person might be quiet or really outgoing, but if that behaviour suddenly changes or you see that they’re starting to withdraw or ‘act out’, this could be an indication that they’re struggling with their mental health.
Any sort of loss or trauma can trigger suicidal thoughts. Someone might be experiencing a divorce, job loss, the death of someone important to them, or maybe they didn’t get the grades they were expecting. Our health encompasses both physical and mental. We all face challenges and traumas in life that can impact on our health. Just like physical ill health, mental ill health can affect anyone and doesn’t discriminate.
You often hear that friends and family are best suited to look out for changes in people, but maybe you’ve noticed a change in someone you work with. Just ask the question, “Are you ok today? and don’t take “I’m fine” as an answer. Take them aside and just ask them - ‘I’ve noticed you’re a little bit quieter’, or “I’ve noticed you’re not yourself.” Don’t just ask once, show them that you’re available and that you care. Offer to take them for a coffee or to go for a walk together. Hopefully, if they’re feeling in distress again, they’ll see you as somebody that notices them, that cares and that they can talk to.
Is there anything else important for people to know?
If you have identified somebody who is having thoughts about suicide or who tells you they are feeling suicidal and you’re hoping to support them, make sure you have support for yourself too. Helping others can be an emotional experience and can also be triggering - you also need to be aware of your own coping strategies and able to identify your own support network.
Remember, it’s ok to put boundaries around the type of support you can offer someone. If you can’t be there for someone to call in the middle of the night, that’s ok; you can share a list of resources and crisis lines (see below) that they can reach out to if you’re not available, or you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to cope with.
Always call 999 if someone’s life is at imminent risk.
In the UK, you can contact us for support by texting the word 'Shout' to 85258. Alternative support services are available at:
- Samaritans - call 116 123 for free support
- Papyrus - call 0800 068 4141 or text 07860 039 967 for free, confidential suicide prevention advice
- Calm - call 0800 58 58 58 for free, confidential support between 5pm - midnight
- Young Minds - call 0808 802 5544 for advice, support and signposting for parents about a child or young person under the age of 25. Open Mon - Fri, 9.30am - 4pm.