For Suicide Awareness Month, I thought I’d share what I learned having been taught elementary intervention for those contemplating suicide. Being trained to be a suicide alert helper showed me how to navigate a serious subject with candor.
Here are a few important take-aways.
1. Know Your Resources
Anyone has the ability to be a helper but few people are aware of what it means to do so. It’s important to recognize that you yourself don’t need to have a solution to the problem in order to offer support. People are often reluctant to help because they think they won’t be able to or they’re unsure of what to do. It’s not your responsibility to offer a “fix” but you can however, support a sufferer in connecting with other trained professionals who can help them help themselves.
Sharing resources with someone can be an important first step but it is hard for people suffering to necessarily follow-through with pursuing treatment. Nor does seeking treatment mean someone will get better soon, in fact it’s usually the opposite – Healing takes time. Depending on your mental and physical capacities, you might offer to accompany them to their first appointment or regularly follow-up in person.
2. Be Direct
It can be a difficult thing to do but speaking about suicide openly and directly is the best way to raise awareness and fight the stigma. Being candid and honest is important to getting the answers that could save someone’s life.
In contrast to commonly-held beliefs, talking to people about suicide does not increase risk of suicidal ideation or behaviours . In general, asking someone if they are considering taking their life is not suggestive to vulnerable populations. If you are sincere in your desire to help – you’re not going to make it worse. In fact, discussing suicide in a supportive and non-judgmental context can foster an encouraging environment and remind others that they’re not alone.
Think about what you would say if you are concerned for someone’s well-being. It’s important to broach the topic specifically.
“Are you thinking about suicide?” “Do you have a plan to take your life?”
3. Know What to Look For
Being aware of warning signs is one of the most important factors that can motivate someone to help. While external appearances are not necessarily good predictors of mental health status, serious life challenges can certainly make people more vulnerable. However, make no assumptions about someone’s internal experience based on their external situation – no one is immune to thoughts of suicide.
As we’ve seen, expressing your concern is typically the opposite of dangerous and actually lets others know that you are available for support should they feel comfortable reaching out. Knowing what to look for not only alerts you to the potential struggles of others but also yourself. If you or someone you know is falling into a bad place, you may be able to recognize the signs before it is too late.
More often than not, people give indications of distress even unconsciously. These clues can be subtle but they also might not. Blunt talk of wanting to die or expressions of distress can sometimes be interpreted as a joke but for everyone’s safety it’s better to take these seriously until there’s reason not to. Things that may be dismissed as “attention-seeking” may very well really mean “help-seeking”.
Be mindful of:
- Changes in temperament or disposition, mood, energy levels, appetite and sleeping patterns.
- Lifestyle changes including increased risk-taking behaviour or impulsivity, withdrawal, aggression or irritability, agitation, anxiety, grief, and drug or alcohol use.
- Talk of death, wanting to “give up”, or sadness and frustration.
- Posting or sharing concerning content on social media.
4. Be Non-Judgmental
As difficult as it is to have a conversation about such a heavy subject, resist the temptation to bring emotions into things.
Don’t shame someone into changing their mind or try to convince them that suicide is “bad” or selfish. Don’t minimize their problems or suggest that things aren’t actually that bad by telling them to focus on the positives.
Respond as if someone had disclosed a serious medical condition (because they have). Ask them if they are seeing a doctor or mental health professional. Offer to help them find support. Ask how you can help.
If you think someone is in immediate danger to themselves or others seek help right away.
- Stay with the person.
- Keep the conversation going until you or someone else can connect with them.
- Listen to them. Ask questions. Remind them that you want to help.
- Get them to emergency support.
Suicide is an emotionally-loaded topic for many but struggling through a hard conversation is far better than seeing another person lose this deadly battle. The very nature of the difficulty of this conversation underlines just how important it truly is.
1. Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Dazzi T., Gribble R., Wessley S., Fear NT. Psychol. Med. (2014) 10.1017/S003329171400129