What Else Becomes Possible When We Talk Openly About Suicide?
As a man in my 30s I’m more likely to die by my own hand than anything else. And if you are a man under the age of 49 then that is statistically true for you as well.
Think about that. We are more likely to kill ourselves than to die in a traffic accident. I’m sure most of us worry more about being murdered or killed in a terrorist attack, two things that are statistically very unlikely to happen to the average person, than the scary truth that we are much more of a threat to ourselves.
Every year about 6000 people take their own life in the UK.
That works out at about one death every two hours.
Men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women.
That works out to be about 12 men taking their own life in the UK every day.
These numbers, and the real people behind them, are the thing that keep me up at night, and that get me out of bed in the morning.
What else becomes possible if we allow ourselves to have open and honest discussions about suicide?
Would talking about suicide and its causes help to bring those numbers down?
I spend a lot of time talking to people about mental health and one of the things I’m always unsure of is what is the best way to discuss, and publish, stories that contain quite graphic references to suicide attempts. Suicide is a topic that comes up time and time again in so many of my conversations. Suicidal thoughts don’t seem to be the isolated thing that I once believed them to be. They are rife. That doesn’t mean that everyone that has a suicidal thought is suicidal, I have a feeling it is part of the human condition, but it’s something to be aware of.
I don’t believe anything should be off the table, especially when it comes to talking about the most difficult bits in our lives, but I don’t want to handle something that I believe can and will save lives in a way that does the opposite. Talking about suicide is important, but I also realise that most of my assumptions about how to talk about suicide come from lived experience and my own belief system of openness and vulnerability.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to dedicate as much time as I can talking to and learning from the people with much more practical experience of this than myself.
See the Signs
Last week I attended a free training put on by Mind BLMK called ‘See the Signs — Suicide Awareness’. I think that it is so important that free and accessible workshops like this exist in our communities.
One of the most useful things about the workshop was in tackling the myths around suicide. Things like the idea that talking about suicide increases the risk of suicide — when in fact the opposite is true. Making someone repress or feel shame about thinking anything, isn’t a way of making it go away. It creates stigma and exacerbates the situation.
Also, something which surprised me at first, but then made more sense when we talked about it is that most people (including up to that point, myself) think that suicide is mainly something that happens in the cold, dark winter months, but actually, apart from a spike at Christmas, suicide levels are at their highest in spring and summer. It’s no coincidence that this is also the time when we are in full swing of posting our super duper summer holiday beach selfies on Instagram.
So what are the things we can do to identify whether the people close to us are considering taking their own life?
Here are some of the signs that Mind and the Samaritans suggest to look out for:
Talking or complaining of feeling hopeless and that life is not worth living
Talking about feeling trapped, such as saying they can’t see anyway out of their current situation
Saying that friends or family would be better off without them
Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
A sudden lift in mood after a period of intense depression
Looking into methods or the means to end their own life
Putting all their affairs in order, such as sorting out possessions or making a will
Saying that they can hear voices telling them to end their own life
And if you do see these signs what is the best thing to do?
I won’t try and paraphrase, here is the advice given on the Mind website of how to talk to someone you think maybe at risk of suicide:
Ask open questions. These are questions that invite someone to say more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’, such as ‘How have you been feeling?’ or ‘What happened next?’ There are more ideas for open questions on the Samaritans website.
Give them time. You might feel anxious to hear their answers, but it helps if you let them take the time they need.
Take them seriously. People who talk about suicide do sometimes act on their feelings — it’s a common myth that they don’t. It’s best to assume that they are telling the truth about feeling suicidal.
Try not to judge. You might feel shocked, upset or frightened, but it’s important not to blame the person for how they are feeling. They may have taken a big step by telling you.
Don’t skirt around the topic. There is still a taboo around talking about suicide which can make it even harder for people experiencing these feelings to open up and feel understood. Direct questions about suicide like ‘Are you having suicidal thoughts?’ or ‘Have you felt like you want to end your life?’ can help someone talk about how they are feeling.
I don’t think these few hours in the training answered conclusively my question of how to collect and publish stories containing references to suicide attempts, but I have been signposted to someone who can help me understand that better. But it did confirm to me the importance of continuing to open up and destigmatize discussions around suicide, depression and mental wellbeing.
Remember those 12 men and 4 women who will take their lives today.
Could opening up a space today for someone you know to share how they are feeling make that number lower?
I’m continuing to explore depression and suicide and I probably always will be. It reminds me so much of the points in my life where I’ve felt so trapped that the rational way out of suffering seemed to be dying, and with this knowledge of that place, and the knowledge that there are people in that place right now, learning how to talk about suicide in a healthy way that saves lives seems imperative.
What would a world without suicide look like?
I’d like to find out.
I think it’s only one that has the possibility of existing if we allow ourselves to talk about suicide in an open and honest way.