Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, an awareness day, which falls on the 10th of September every year. Whilst we’re currently living through a global pandemic thanks to COVID-19, we’ve been living through a mental health epidemic for much longer. In 2019, The charity Samaritans released some harrowing statistics on the suicide rates in 2018: “In 2018, there were 6,507 suicides registered in the UK, an age-standardised rate of 11.2 deaths per 100,000 population; the latest rate is significantly higher than that in 2017 and represents the first increase since 2013. The UK male suicide rate of 17.2 deaths per 100,000 represents a significant increase from the rate in 2017; for females, the UK rate was 5.4 deaths per 100,000, consistent with the rates over the past 10 years.”
They also found that, in the UK, the highest suicide rate is among men aged 45-49, and that the rate for women under 25 has increased by 93.8% since 2012.
How to talk about suicide
It’s too early for concrete findings on the effect COVID-19 has had on suicide rates, despite (unsubstantiated) claims of a ‘200% increase’ circulating on social media – what we do know, however, is that the challenging times we’re living in has had a negative impact on mental health. Babylon Health conducted a study that found that 53% of those questioned have struggled with mental health issues during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We might know the devastating facts like suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50, but what then? What can we do to help those contemplating suicide, how can we help those in our lives struggling with bad mental health?
What warning signs can you look out for?
Often, someone having suicidal thoughts won’t tell you explicitly that this is happening to them. It’s important to try and be aware when someone close to you has changes in their behavior, as a first step, in order to support them. Trust your gut feelings – if a friend, family member, or work colleague you know well is acting out of character, and you feel concerned, it’s best to speak to them.
According to Rethink Mental Illness, the below can be indicators that they might be having suicidal thoughts…
being more irritable
being more confrontational
having mood swings
sleeping too much or too little
not wanting to be around other people
avoiding contact with friends and family
having different problems with work or studies
saying negative things about themselves.
Rethink also cites the below as signs that someone is planning to attempt suicide:
threatening to hurt or kill themselves,
talking or writing about death, dying or suicide,
preparing to end their life. Such as storing up medication, or
putting affairs in order. Such as giving away belongings or making a will.
How to open up the conversation with someone you think is having suicidal thoughts and feelings
It’s important to be sensitive and empathetic when opening up these kinds of conversations, but it’s also imperative that you’re direct.
For example, questions like the below are a good place to start:
How are you coping with what’s been happening in your life?
Do you ever feel like just giving up?
Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
Are you thinking about suicide?
Asking someone such direct questions is scary, and you could feel like it’s ‘not your place’. Mayoclinic offers the same advice: “Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.”
The questions you ask are important, but what’s more important is how you react – this person is likely feeling very isolated and alone, so showing you care and will listen could save their life. You don’t need to have the perfect answers, but giving them space to open up to you will be a lifeline.
When talking about mental health and suicide, it’s often what we *don’t* say that’s important. People having suicidal thoughts will often feel immense shame, as we’ve been conditioned by society to see suicide as something that’s shameful (it’s not).
Try to ‘fix’ them, if there was an easy solution they’d have already tried it.
Use language like ‘man up’, ‘pull yourself together’, ‘cheer up’, ‘it’s not that bad’, or ‘don’t be silly’.
Tell them they have it better than others, or a good life, and that they shouldn’t be feeling like this.
Change the subject or gloss over it.
If someone tells you they are feeling suicidal or have attempted suicide, here’s how to try and keep them safe…
If someone has attempted suicide, they need urgent and immediate help:
Stay with them, and if you can’t, make sure someone else you trust does. Don’t leave them alone.
Call 999 or take them to the closest hospital emergency room.
Tell a close friend or family member of theirs what’s happening.
If someone tells you they are having suicidal thoughts or you have reason to believe they are…
Don’t leave them on their own.
Find professional help for them urgently, call 999 if you’re worried about them being in immediate danger. If the threat isn’t immediate, the NHS has mental health services open 24/7 that you can call on behalf of your friend or family member. Or you can call the NHS number 111.
Suggest helplines and charities for them to contact, and encourage them to do it right away. The NHS recommends to call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text “YM” if you’re under 19.
Remove any items they could harm themselves with.