If talking about suicide makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. More GPs than patients report struggling to talk about it, worried they’ll ‘put the idea in someone’s head’. For clarity, Rethink Mental Illness state “asking about suicide won’t make it more likely to happen”. Likewise, The National Suicide Prevention Alliance state “if a person is suicidal, the idea is already there. If they aren’t suicidal, it won’t do any harm”. That said, it can be difficult to find the words for all involved.
To anyone concealing their feelings, know that no professional in the UK will section you for saying you’re suicidal. Instead, they’ll ask questions to check if you can keep yourself safe. Only if the answer is no will they consider acting on your behalf. It will go on your medical record, but that won’t affect your insurance. What it will do is give your GP an insight into how hard things are for you right now, and a measuring stick in case they get worse.
The same is true of friendships. If you tell a friend you’re struggling, it means you can tell them when it gets worse. Without that first step, you leave yourself nowhere to go. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Start the conversation when the ground shakes, not when it breaks.
It’s understandable to find difficult conversations hard. Professionals receive training for a reason and others who think they’re helping often make mistakes. If you’re struggling, there are some things you can do to help.
Use “I”. Thoughts aren’t facts. They’re insights into how you feel — guiding stars to your inner world. Chart them out. There’s a world of difference between ‘you’re not listening’ and ‘I feel like you’re not listening.’ One closes the discussion. The other acknowledges it’s your perspective, inviting a discussion on how the other person can show you they are, in fact, listening.
Write it down. Don’t worry about making it sound good, just express your truth. Being able to say how you feel is a skill. Be honest with yourself, even if it’s just a note on your phone. Get the words out. You may feel differently when you see them. You may want to show someone. You may want to delete it immediately. It doesn’t matter. You will have learnt something either way. Call the Samaritans (in the UK). You don’t have to be suicidal to call the Samaritans, only in distress. When you call, someone will answer and say, ‘Can I help you?’ That’s your invitation to talk about your feelings. Many people find they can be more honest with a total stranger, outside their lives. You don’t even have to give a name. Telling them might be the first step to telling someone else. Try it out. If it’s too much, you can try again.
For those concerned about somebody else, it’s important not to panic. When someone says they’re suicidal, it doesn’t mean ‘save me.’ The fact they told you is good. It means they think they’re not alone — so prove it.
Show you’re listening. Being a good listener means more than keeping quiet. It involves looking like you care and then actually caring. People can tell the difference. Nod. React. If you’re shocked, gasp. See things how they do and feel it with them. If you ask questions, ask open ones, not just yes or no. Don’t be afraid to look, but don’t stare. Most importantly, be yourself. If it frightens you to hear something, say it.
Don’t problem solve. Problem solving undermines someone’s capacity to improve their situation. Only they know what’s best for them. Ask about problems they’ve overcome before and how. Ask when they feel their best and worst, and why. Ask if there’s anything you can do, and be ready to hear no. Don’t change the subject unless they ask. The majority of suicidal people live long, fulfilling lives. You haven’t failed if they don’t change their mind.
Don’t keep it to yourself. One person’s life is too much for anyone to carry. Even if they begged you not to, tell someone you trust. Why? Because it’s too big a thing to be left alone with. It’s not fair for you to feel solely responsible. Even therapists have therapists. You don’t have to say every detail, just that you’re worried about someone who’s struggling. It’ll help you make sense of your feelings and what to do about them.
Suicide can feel like an invisible issue. It happens in the shadows, only coming to light when it’s too late. It may be difficult to hear about or admit, but it’s happening — and pretending otherwise isn’t helping. 1 in 5 adults think about suicide at some point in their lives. That’s not just common, it’s normal.
It’s OK to feel suicidal. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to end your life, but don’t feel ashamed. The reality is, if you’re feeling suicidal, you’re simply one of the many people in this world who’ve been pushed to their limit and felt there was no way out. You’re not alone.
To reduce suicide, we need to bring it out of the shadows. Make space for those conversations with the people you care about so when — not if — they experience thoughts of suicide, they can talk to you.
Saying you can’t bear it makes it easier to bear. And that’s the trick.