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How To Have Conversations About Suicide

Wrote this on

August 23, 2021

conversations about suicide

Suicide is a topic many of us still shy away from due to its stigmatisation. According to the WHO, one in 100 deaths is by suicide, and for every death by suicide, 20 more will attempt to take their lives. Suicide is a serious public health issue but it can be prevented. One way in preventing suicide is by talking about it and reducing the stigma.

How To Talk To Someone You’re Worried Might Hurt Themselves

If you are speaking to someone and they tell you that they are thinking about hurting themselves in some way or want to end their life, what can you do?

Understandably, this situation can be very unnerving and can leave you unsure of what to say or do.

Especially as it is not a conversation we have with people every day. However, if someone has trusted you enough to disclose this information, there are a couple of things you can say and do to feel more confident in your response, and make a difference to them.

1. First, be human. Someone is opening up to you because they are distressed, and you are approachable. Have empathy, and reassure them. Tell them you are sorry that they feel this way and you will try and help them.

2. Ask them how safe they feel now. It may be just an idea that someone has had, and they don’t want to act on it, or perhaps someone is so distressed they can’t stop thinking about hurting themselves. They may feel unsafe in themselves and need someone to help them find safety.

3. Ask if there is anything you can do that can help. Maybe they just wanted someone to listen, or perhaps they are scared of having these ideas. Maybe they want someone to go to the hospital with them, or call their family. There is always something you can do to help.

4. Make an action plan. You cannot stop this person from feeling this way or having these thoughts, but you can make sure they are kept safe to access the help they need. This might involve calling their next of kin and explaining to them why you are worried and asking them to pick up their loved one, taking the person to the GP or A and E (to access emergency psychiatric services) or talking to someone more senior at work or contacting HR for advice.

5. Be honest with them. If you need to tell someone else to keep them safe, tell them that is what you are doing. If you are worried about them and want to go to the hospital with them, tell them. If you want them to access help, tell them. People often need some help in making decisions and might be relieved you are making this decision for them.

6. Be brave to do what you need to do. Someone might be angry with you for taking the steps needed to keep them safe but it is better to have them safe and work through any issues in your relationship afterwards.

Suicide or self-harm can be scary when you first hear about them, but that doesn’t mean you cannot have the conversation. Sometimes just speaking to someone else about these types of thoughts, destigmatises mental health problems and can make someone feel listened to and important enough.

You can help by listening, and you can help by taking the steps you need to keep them safe.

Related: How To Spot Signs of Mental Ill-Health At Work

Suicide: How To Talk To Someone After An Attempt

If someone you know has attempted suicide, or someone discloses to you that they have tried to end their life in the past, it can be difficult to know how to respond. You might feel worried and overwhelmed and not know what to say, which would be a normal reaction to hearing something distressing. Here are a few tips to help you if you find yourself having such a conversation:

1. Respect them by not avoiding them – it can be hard to know what to say to someone, but it is better to treat them with respect and speak to them as soon as you can.

2. Don’t avoid the subject – it is best to acknowledge what has happened and ask how they are doing now.

3. Empathy and kindness – tell them how pleased you are that they are still here now, and is there anything you can do to help them, especially if it was a recent event.

4. Listen – give them some space to talk about what happened, or if they don’t want to talk about it, that is OK too. Just let them know that if they want to talk about it then that is OK with you.

conversations about suicide

5. Act normally – talk about what you used to talk about – football, work, TV, gardening and so on. They are still the same person they were and you will both be able to relax in these conversations.

Everyone will have difficult experiences in life and whatever has led them to this point, they will be feeling anxious and unsure of how people will respond to them. Treat them with respect and dignity, and speak to them with honesty and compassion. They will appreciate it and you will feel more comfortable too.

Written by Lauren Callaghan, Head of Psychology at Everymind at Work

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