Suicide is always a difficult topic to discuss. Even when the conversations around mental health and support are opening up, suicide and suicidal thoughts still make a lot of people uncomfortable. But it's a conversation that is absolutely vital to have, especially if someone you know is struggling. Many people we speak to tell us they wouldn't know what to say if someone disclosed suicidal feelings to them, or what kind of support to offer. On top of that, many revealed that they wouldn't recognise the signs if someone was feeling suicidal, so wouldn't feel able to offer support. But with suicide rates on the rise, especially in young people, it's never been more important for you to know the signs, and know what to say to someone in mental health crisis.
Immediate Warning Signs
There are a variety of signs that someone close to you may be at high risk of attempting suicide. This can include things like:
- Threatening to hurt themselves or take their own life, even in a flippant way.
- Talking or writing intently about death, dying, suicide or after-life arrangements.
- Actively looking for ways to take their own life, such as stockpiling tablets or collecting blades.
Other Warning Signs
Of course, not everyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts has reached that critical crisis engagement. Often there is a period of time when someone will feel depressed or low, and even contemplating suicide, where the signs are clear if you know what to look for. This can include things like:
Talking About Suicide - This can be both directly, like having open discussions about dying, self-harm or suicide. But it can also be more subtle, with phrases like 'I wish I hadn't been born', 'if I see you again' or 'things would be better if I wasn't here'.
Hopelessness - Feelings of hopelessness are something that everyone feels from time to time. But expressing a persistent view that things are hopeless, that they feel trapped or that things won't get better can be a risk indicator.
Self-Hatred – Feelings of being worthless, useless or ashamed. This could take the form of guilt for 'being a burden' or self-loathing behaviours.
Withdrawing From Others – Becoming isolated and withdrawn from other people can be a big indicator that something is going on- particularly if they were previously a very outgoing person. Many people struggling with suicidal thoughts will self-isolate from friends and family, often expressing a desire to be left alone.
Self-Destructive Behaviour - An increase in using substances such as drugs or alcohol, reckless driving, having unsafe sex and generally engaging in high-risk behaviours.
A Sudden Sense Of Calm - If someone you know is troubled seems overcome with a sudden sense of calm, especially after a period of extreme depression, can mean that they've made a decision to end things.
Saying Goodbye - Unexpected visits, phone calls or messages that are unusually sentimental in nature, or heartfelt goodbyes as though they won't see them again.
Some of these signs are much subtler than others, especially if you don't have a close relationship with the person. Everyone processes and shows emotions differently, which is why a big indicator is often 'unusual behaviour'. If you notice any of these signs, it's important that you don't stay silent, and instead try to offer support in any way you can. This brings us to...
Talking To Someone You Think Might Be Suicidal
If you think that someone you know is feeling suicidal, or even just have a niggling feeling that something isn't right, it's important to speak up. Talking is the first and most important step to preventing suicide, so even though you may feel awkward or uncomfortable, it's something you need to do. And yes, we know that's a lot of pressure! But that's where we can help. Because while every person and situation is different, there are 4 steps you can take:
Ask If They're OK: In a friendly and relaxed way, open up the conversation by asking if they are OK. You can encourage them to open up by asking things like 'How are you doing?" and "What’s been going on?'. Your goal here isn't to interrogate them, but to make them feel comfortable and know that you are a safe person to open up to. You can try mentioning specific things that have made you concerned for them, like 'You seem less chatty than usual, what's been going on?' Avoid being confrontational, and if they don't want to talk right then, don't criticise them.
Listen: And we mean really listen. Openly, carefully and without judgement. Talking about suicidal feelings is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and criticism or judgment will only shut people down or make them feel worse. Try not to interrupt or rush the conversation- let them go at their own pace. If they need time to think, sit patiently with them and give them that space. Acknowledge that things seem hard for them and encourage them to explain. Phrases like 'How are you feeling about that' or 'How long have you felt that way’ can really help here. Show them that you have actually been listening by repeating back what you've heard in your own words and let them know that you see how hard things are for them.
Encourage Action: Once they have said everything they want to, now is the time to gently encourage action. It's important to be gentle and non-judgemental here, and to not come across as 'pushy'. Instead, ask them what they've done in the past to manage these feelings. What activities could they do just for them that are enjoyable, or could help them get on top of things. Rather than give unsolicited suggestions, ask them what support they think would be helpful right now, and how they would like you to help them. If they've been feeling depressed for over two weeks, encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional. This is often an area people struggle with, so a good way to approach it could look like this: 'It might be useful for you to link up with someone who can support you. I'm happy to help you find the right person to talk to, and we can explore what that looks like together!
Check In: Make sure that conversation isn't the last time you talk to them about their mental health. If you need to, put a diary reminder in to check in with them, either in a few days or a week. Don't frame it as a check in, but rather that you were thinking of them and wanted to see how they've been getting on. You can ask if they've found a better way to manage the situation, but if they haven't, don't judge them. They may just need someone to listen and be there for them right now - and that's your role. Genuine care and concern can go a long way.
Through all of this, don't forget to look after yourself too. It's all too easy to feel responsible once someone has expressed suicidal intentions. Being there during someone's darkest times is tough, so make sure you have someone you can talk to through all of this as well.