One in every 100 deaths worldwide is the result of suicide and in June 2021 World Health Organisation (WHO) told us that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds globally.
In 2019 the Office for National Statistics shows 5,691 registered suicides in England and Wales, that’s around 16 deaths by suicide per day. Shockingly three-quarters of the registered deaths were among men. The statistics also showed that since 2012 there has been a 94% increase in suicide in 10–24-year-old females. The WHO report also tells us that suicide rates are high within vulnerable groups who are subjected to discrimination including refugees, migrants, prisoners, indigenous people, and individuals from the LGBTI community.
World Suicide Prevention Day is an opportunity for us to raise awareness, reduce the stigma around suicide and encourage conversations and an open-ness to reduce suicide and suicide attempts.
Statistics are heartbreaking and shocking. Any deaths by suicide are too many so I am writing this today in the hope that it will breakdown some misconceptions about suicide, encourage you to reflect on your practice and language when talking about suicide and to feel confident to talk about suicide and thoughts of suicide with those you work alongside.
One of the biggest misconceptions I have come across in working with suicidal young people is the thinking that if I ask about suicide, I could be encouraging that person to act on it. The reality is quite different. By being more open to talking about suicide and feelings of wanting to die you may provide a great sense of relief for that person who has not felt able to express how they are feeling, who felt that they would be told “stop being silly” or who thought they would be judged, or even that their feelings would simply be dismissed.
Why someone wants to die is of course personal to them but wanting to end their life maybe because they feel it is the only way to escape from unbearable pain, that it will stop distressing thoughts and feelings, to take control, because they feel trapped, alone or isolated. They may feel as though they are a burden to those around them and those people would be better off without them in their life or that things will never get better. Ultimately, they are likely to feel that this is their only option. Thoughts of suicide can happen to anyone at any time and being able to talk about it may alleviate how they feel and prevent their death.
There is no exhaustive list of indicators of suicide, but you may see signs or notice cues about how someone is feeling, for example, the loss of interest in things, withdrawing from people and places and even giving away possessions, they might have no thoughts about their future because they can’t envisage having a future. You may notice physical changes in someone, perhaps a lack of interest in their appearance and self-care. There are also verbal cues to be mindful of. For example, expressing thoughts of hopelessness, feeling worthless or trapped or someone telling you “I can’t do this anymore”, “they’d be better off without me”.
Sometimes the signs might be more obvious, but they can also be more subtle. It is my belief that within the work we do with young people and families the relationships we build, and nurture are so vital in hearing and seeing the cues that someone might be feeling suicidal. Our actions, no matter how big or small show that we care and may provide hope to the person struggling. You might never know the difference you made to that person at that time of their life.
Still to this day I remember the first young person I talked to about their suicidal feelings. I reflected on what I heard and that it sounded like they didn’t want to be alive anymore and that young person just burst into tears. I will be honest, I felt panic, dread and worry that I had got it so wrong, worried that they might harm themselves but what happened is why that young person has stayed with me all these years. They cried because they had been feeling suicidal for a long time because they were exhausted with carrying on and feeling as though it was obvious to everyone how they were feeling and believing that no one cared. They said it was such a relief that someone had recognised how they were feeling and hadn’t been dismissive of it or told them “you’ll be fine, it will be ok”. After a long conversation and thinking about how they could stay safe when feeling like they wanted to die they told me they actually felt a bit better like they had been given permission to talk about it and it wasn’t as scary as they thought it would be. I didn’t ‘fix’ what was happening for them, I didn’t need to, I just needed to be there, that was the most powerful thing I could do for that young person at that moment in time.
So, what can you do?
The first thing I think you must acknowledge is that you don’t have to solve or fix problems or have the answers, the most important thing is to be willing to listen and to be compassionate.
Take them seriously, sharing thoughts of suicide is courageous.
Ask open questions to encourage conversation, reflect on what they say as a way of clarifying and if you are not sure what they mean, ask.
If you don’t know what to say, that really is ok, and it is ok to tell them that too but reassure them that you are glad they have told you. Being genuine like this is much better than trying to jump in and ‘fix’ things or offering platitudes like “it’ll be ok”.
Be there for them free of any judgement or comments that may trivialise how they are feeling.
Hearing why someone wants to die is hard, I’ve heard so many young people talk about why they don’t want to be alive anymore, but you have to hear that before you can think about reasons to live.
Talk about what keeps them safe, what has helped if they have felt like this before, is there a place that makes them feel safe, ask who they talk to when they are feeling like they want to die (if you are talking to them this could well include you).
For those of you who have attending NWG’s Mind Your Language webinar, you know that this wouldn’t be me without talking a little about the importance of language.
Don’t shy away from using the word ‘suicide’. It’s a word people can avoid for some of the reasons I have given but the more we normalise talking openly and honestly and our feelings and about suicide the less fearful people will be to share how they truly feel. I don’t know about you but if I have had a stressful day or I am feeling anxious about something, sharing how I feel about it can be cathartic, and that is powerful; so just imagine how powerful it would feel if you were feeling so low that you didn’t want to be alive anymore.
Consider the language you use as this is important too. Don’t talk about committing suicide; what do you think about when you hear committing? For me, it’s about committing to something, where it becomes an obligation or habit, or you commit a crime both of which sound negative and conclusive. It is the same with the term failed suicide attempt which gives you the notion that they weren’t successful and frames death by suicide as an achievement, a positive.
There isn’t one approach that works but know that being genuine, caring and empathic can prevent suicide.
We would like to invite you to consider attending the suicide training we have running on 17th November from Papyrus titled SP-EAK – Suicide Prevention – Explore, Ask, Keep-safe.
To learn much more about suicide supporting young people. Full details and booking available soon – check back at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/nwg-exploitation-network-10661324498 for details
Where to go for support?
HOPELINEUK – if you are aged 35 and under and experiencing thoughts of suicide you can contact us on 0800 0684141, text 07860 039967 or email [email protected]. Open from 9 am until midnight every day.
ChildLine – support can be accessed for children aged 18 and under and by calling 0800 1111 or through their website https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/contcating-childline
Samaritans – not matter what your age you can call them on 116 123 or email [email protected]