This blog was contributed by Professional Help’s Head of Counselling, Joanna Williams.
Suicide is a global epidemic, claiming 800,000 lives a year, and few could argue it doesn’t require global attention. Initiatives like World Suicide Prevention Day (which falls on September 10th) give the opportunity to shed light on the facts around suicide, to unpick some of the myths and stigma, and in a world in which lower socio-economic status correlates with higher suicide rates and psychological illness is the biggest risk factor, lobby those in power for social and political change and greater investment in beleaguered mental health services.
All of these actions are important. Suicide and attempted suicide are still criminal offences in many countries around the world and deemed sinful in some cultures and religions. The day, the hashtags, the news items, provide a vehicle for much-needed public discourse. But discourse is only helpful if matched by positive action. So what, if anything, can be done on World Suicide Prevention Day and every other day of the year, by us as individuals?
It’s estimated that each death by suicide affects over 100 people, directly and indirectly. It’s a bereavement that perhaps more than any other leaves questions, many of which will remain unanswered in perpetuity. The most agonising of these is often: ‘Could I have done something to prevent it?’
Sadly, on an individual basis, this is almost impossible to answer. However, we do know a few things. We have the testimony of people who have survived suicide attempts and tell us what might have made a difference to them. We also know that contrary to the fears a lot of people have, asking someone about their suicidal ideation does not make them more likely to complete the act. In fact, asking someone ‘are you thinking about taking your own life?’ might well be the question that stops them from doing so.
Many of the well-meaning messages on social media recently have run along the lines of: ‘things will get better’; ‘you are loved’; ‘stay’. It is not for me to say whether or not these are helpful for some people, but it should also be acknowledged that for someone in the grip of suicidal ideation, these messages may not land. For a person having suicidal thoughts, the overriding feeling is commonly despair – the conviction that things will not get better. They may well feel they are not loved, or that they are loved by people whose love they do not deserve. To ‘stay’ is am entreaty to endure something that seems unendurable. If we consider that the key risk factors for suicide, alongside mental ill health, include poverty, chronic pain, and a recent significant bereavement (especially if sudden or especially traumatic), we might understand that those problems can seem insurmountable, and in practical terms may well be unlikely to improve; then from this recognition we can move towards a position of greater empathy.
As individuals, whether as trained professionals working with people facing mental health challenges or as laypeople supporting our friends and loved ones, it is incumbent on us not to offer advice, but to listen, and acknowledge. Acknowledging suicidal feelings is not the same thing as approving the act. For every individual who dies by suicide, another 25 people make an attempt. Innumerable others experience suicidal ideation. It’s time we all recognised the fact that while each experience is, of course, unique, these thoughts and impulses are not uncommon. Perhaps rather than glib ‘look on the bright side, things will get better’ messages, we could try ‘I understand things are bad right now, how can we keep you safe today?’
Many of us avoid conversations about suicide because of fear of doing harm, but also because experiencing suicidal thoughts is a difficult and dark place to be. Among the global awareness-raising, we can each make a difference locally by taking notice, reaching out to our friends and neighbours to ask, “are you ok?” and being genuinely prepared to hear the answer. For an individual travelling a particularly hard road, perhaps the most powerful message they can receive is that someone is willing, without judgement, to walk alongside them.