10th September each year is observed as World Suicide Prevention Day, with the aim of raising awareness about suicide and reducing the number of deaths by suicide.
We all need to improve our knowledge and empathy around suicide and one way to do this is to address some of the common misunderstandings and myths that still exist – then we can open up the conversation and hopefully be better equipped to help someone struggling if the need arises.
Suicide affects mostly young people / men / the mentally ill
Suicide is more common than you might think, and suicidal thoughts can affect anyone. In fact, research suggests 1 in 5 people have experienced suicidal thoughts at some time in their lives and, given the stigma that still exists around the subject, the actual number may well be higher. You don’t have to have a diagnosed mental health condition to feel suicidal, although certain illnesses may place you at higher risk.
In terms of age and gender, it’s true that in England and Wales, around 75% of people who complete suicide are men, and there are still barriers in our culture to men talking about their feelings, which is likely to be a risk factor. However it’s also true that many more women attempt suicide. Emotional distress can affect anyone of any gender or age. In fact although suicide is currently the biggest killer of men under 45 in England and Wales, there is also evidence that rates of death by suicide peak again much later in life (age >85).
We can’t make assumptions about who might be at risk.
Someone who talks about suicidal thoughts is less likely to actually do it
This is simply not true, in fact many people who complete suicide have told at least one person that they are thinking of ending their life, and tragically, may have sought help and struggled to find it. Although admitting suicidal thoughts can be a positive sign, especially if the person is asking for help keeping themselves safe, it cannot be construed as a sign that they are not in danger. It is a sign that they are looking for support right now, and it’s important they are taken seriously.
Of course, some people die by suicide having never mentioned their thoughts or intentions to anyone. There are no rules or certainties here, which is why any clue that someone might be suicidal should not be ignored.
Most suicide attempts are just attention seeking or a “cry for help”
This is a potentially very harmful myth that attempts to diminish the suffering of people who have tried to take their life. Anyone who thinks about or attempts suicide deserves compassion and to be taken seriously.
What’s more, once someone has attempted suicide and survived, they are more likely to try again. In fact a suicide survivor is 100 times more likely to complete suicide than someone who has never previously attempted it. For that reason, they absolutely should be given attention.
Anyone bereaved by suicide would never take their own life
Sadly, bereavement is among the risk factors for suicide, especially bereavement by sudden or traumatic means, including suicide. Because of the acute distress a death by suicide often causes loved ones, it might seem unlikely that a survivor of this kind of bereavement would visit that upset again on family and friends, but suicidal thoughts just don’t work that way.
A person considers ending their own life very often from a place of hopelessness; a sense that things will never be better. They may believe there is no reason to continue to exist and that others don’t need them or would actively do better without them. All of these can be feelings that co-exist with the deep and complex grief that follows a bereavement by suicide.
Asking someone if they’re thinking about suicide might encourage them to do it
You can’t give someone the “idea” of suicide. And encouraging someone to talk about their suicidal thoughts is absolutely not the same thing as approving the act itself. In fact, helping them open up and talk about how they’re feeling, listening to them in a non-judgmental way, might be the first step towards them feeling valued, and perhaps seeking help. Many people who feel suicidal don’t want to die; they want a way out of the pain they are in at the moment. Being able to talk about that may help them find other options that are not suicide.
Don’t be afraid to ask the question; you may save a life.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, we recommend you urgently seek support through one of the following organisations:
The Samaritans – www.samaritans.org / Phone: 116 123
Rethink Mental Illness – www.rethink.org
Staying Safe – www.stayingsafe.net
Papyrus Prevention of Young Suicide – www.papyrus.org.uk / Phone: 0800 068 41 41
Shout Crisis Line – Text ‘Shout’ to 85258.
Written by Joanna Williams Head of Counselling at Professional Help