Something that was clear from Meghan Markle’s powerful interview with Oprah Winfrey, is that we need to get better at supporting people who are suicidal.
If you think a loved one may be having suicidal thoughts, it can be tempting to tread on eggshells through fear of making things worse. But having visible support can make all the difference, says the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA).
“When a person reaches a point where they feel suicidal, they often lose sight of being able to work through their problems,” a spokesperson tells HuffPost UK.
“They can feel completely consumed with hopelessness and often believe those around them will be better off if they are no longer here. Talking can really help a person to see a way through this and we would encourage anyone who is feeling low to reach out for help.”
How To Recognise The Signs
“There can be a number of signs and symptoms that someone is contemplating suicide, but it is not always easy to tell,” says Laura Peters, head of advice and information at Rethink Mental Illness.
Warning signs might include a notable change in someone’s personality or behaviour. For example, if they’ve suddenly become isolated or reserved when they’re normally confident and bubbly.
“They might also begin to openly discuss trying to hurt or kill themselves, or talking and writing about death,” says Peters. “Any talk about them wanting to take their life should be taken seriously. If they do tell you they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, encourage them to talk.
“You don’t have to understand, and there’s no need for you to try and provide answers. It can be enough to listen and to let them know that you care.”
Alternatively there might be no signs at all. But if something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts.
How To Help
Laura Whitehurst, who attempted suicide in 2014, says the most important thing is to speak to a loved one if you think they’re having suicidal thoughts. She says when she was at her lowest her “vision became a dark tunnel” and she couldn’t see any option of escape.
“The only option that I could see was to end my life,” she explains. “For anyone else looking in who has not experienced these feelings, it sounds illogical, but to me and to many others fighting, it’s the only logical solution your mind can produce.”
At the time, Whitehurst didn’t share these thoughts with anyone, but she believes there may have been warning signs visible to others. “If you are concerned about a loved one – if they are teary a lot of the time, if they lose interest in everything around them, and if they seem to have lost hope – reach out to them and be that person to listen,” she advises.
Discussing suicide for the first time can be emotional and confusing for all involved, but Whitehurst says it’s important not to display emotions of frustration. “Don’t shout or get upset with them, even though that may be your first reaction,” she says.
“I dealt with a lot of yelling after my attempt, but mostly because people were angry with themselves that they didn’t notice or angry at me for not talking to them.”
Instead, she recommends calmly sitting down and offering practical support, such as working with your loved one to help them find professional help. “Provide a lot of hugs and ultimately be patient,” she says.
Natalie Howarth, director at Maytree, the UK’s first residential respite centre for people feeling suicidal, agrees it’s important not to let your own emotions take over the situation.
“People’s response is shock, disbelief, wanting to fix it, wanting to make it alright and okay for that individual,” she says. “Callers often say that’s the last thing they need and what they want or need is for the person to say, ‘okay, tell me about it’, but in a way where the family member puts aside their shock, despair, their wanting to fix it, and that is so tricky.”
Asking open questions such as “how bad is it?” and avoiding judgmental phrases such as “you aren’t going to do anything stupid, are you?” can help. And if they do talk about feeling suicidal, it’s important to let them know you’d like to help and that you’re taking the situation seriously.
“If they are reluctant to talk out of fear of retribution, or embarrassment, take the time to reassure them,” Peters adds. “It’s natural that they will be feeling scared or confused. Avoid saying things like ‘cheer up’, or saying that there’s no reason to feel the way that they do, and instead just listen and let them know you care about them and want to help them through this.
“If you feel that they might be in immediate danger, call 999. Samaritans are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 116 123. It’s also advisable to go and see your GP, they will be able to identify support that’s local to you.”
Unfortunately there is no “quick cure” for suicidal thoughts and sometimes, despite your best efforts to help, a loved one may still go on to take their life. However just trying to be there for someone can make a big difference.
This is true for Whitehurst, who wrote a blog to celebrate her “first birthday”, a year after attempting suicide. “Although the tunnel has gotten a little wider and brighter for me, it’s still hard sometimes to fight the feelings that still exist,” she says. “But with my friends and my partner knowing how to help me through when things do get tough, I know I can talk and receive the support I need.”
Potential signs someone is suicidal, according to the NSPA:
- A change in routine, such as sleeping or eating less than normal
- Lacking energy or appearing particularly tired
- Drinking, smoking or using drugs more than usual
- Finding it hard to cope with everyday things
- Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
- Becoming withdrawn from friends and family, not wanting to talk
- Appearing more tearful
- Appearing restless, agitated, nervous, irritable
- Putting themselves down in a serious or jokey way, for example ‘Oh, no one loves me’ or ’I’m a waste of space’
- Losing interest in their appearance, not liking or taking care of themselves.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.
Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070.