Suicide is preventable, and the following real stories demonstrate how far kindness can go in encouraging someone to get support for the challenges they’re facing.
“I was in such a dark place a year ago that when a colleague took the time to ask how I was doing, I felt really awkward at first. But he didn’t judge me and made it very clear that he had time to talk with me. He was just so kind and that made me feel a lot less nervous. We went for a coffee and I told him what was going on in my life. He didn’t look shocked or angry at me when I mentioned the word suicide. He just listened, and then stayed with me while I called Samaritans.”
”To think that someone picked up on the fact that something wasn’t quite right for me was really surprising. I’d felt invisible and rubbish for such a long time that it came as a revelation that another person could actually see that I was struggling. My colleague helped me to understand that I was worth listening to. I felt so much better for having shared my feelings with someone else. She didn’t judge me and it felt very natural when she asked if I was feeling suicidal. When I acknowledged that I was, she reassured me that feeling like you want to die isn’t about being weak and there is a lot of help available. She retired shortly after but I will never forget her. To this day, I can honestly say that she helped save my life.”
“I’ve been through a lot in my 48 years and I got to the point where I couldn’t see things getting any better. I guess you could say that I’d given up. I was struggling at work and at home, and even my friends were telling me to pull myself together. That made me feel even worse about myself.
A woman who works in the canteen in my office must have seen that I was suffering and she asked me how I was, if she could help. I suddenly burst into tears right there and then, and I felt so ashamed.
But I’ll never forget that Tuesday afternoon that changed everything for the better. This woman I barely knew offered to have a chat when she finished her shift. She was so kind and genuine. When she asked me if I was feeling suicidal, I felt that I could be honest because I just knew that she wouldn’t judge me. I called my GP right after she and I had a cup of tea together, and I’ve never looked back. I told her months later that she’d saved my life but she just smiled and said that she was so glad that I stayed. So am I.”
* Names have been changed.
Good practice when supporting someone who is suicidal
Have the conversation in a place of the person’s choosing
They may wish to stay in the office, sit outside, go for a walk with you, or go to a café. It’s important that they feel in control of where you meet so go with what they suggest.
Talking about suicide will never cause someone to consider it
If you have any concerns whatsoever, it’s important that you ask ‘”Are you feeling suicidal?” or ”Are you thinking of taking your life?”
Ask them if they have a plan in place
They may want to tell you the date they have chosen or the method they will use, but if they don’t, resist the urge to tease this information out. It’s enough to know that they have a plan in their own mind. If the person tells you that they don’t have a plan, they are still at risk of suicide but may require a different intensity of professional intervention.
Validate the person’s feelings
For example, ”I can see that you’re really distressed” or “I hear you when you say that things have been really difficult lately”.
Keep your body language neutral and open
Certain types of body language such as crossed arms or a lack of eye contact can send the wrong message to someone you’re supporting. You want them to feel comfortable which they will find difficult if you’re coming across as tense or avoidant.
Remove all distractions during the conversation
For example, show the person that you’re shutting off your mobile phone from the start – don’t just put it on silent. If you’re near your computer, put it on silent mode too so that neither of you hear emails coming in.
Don’t listen to respond: listen to understand
Check in with yourself when you start to respond before the person is finished saying what they need to say.
Don’t share your personal experiences or those of people you know
This conversation is about them and you don’t want to take the focus away from their story.
Ask open questions
For example, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How are your concerns affecting other areas of your life?”
Never offer your own thoughts and insights into their situation
This conversation is about them, not you, so avoid telling them what you think they should do about their particular issues.
Ask them what has helped them in the past if they’ve ever felt suicidal before
Use their responses to help them to explore how they might use these skills and tools in the present to help themselves stay safe.
Give the person the time to think and space to think
If they’re silent, wait until they’re ready to continue. Silence can feel strange but it’s a useful way for you both to catch your breath.
Don’t panic if the person starts to cry
This is natural so it can be useful to have some tissues handy just in case. Many people feel awkward when someone cries, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve made things worse.
Take care not to say anything that might seem judgmental or dismissive. Expressing shock or empty reassurances, such as “You’ll be fine,” may cause them to just shut down. Try asking instead what’s causing their suicidal feelings or how you might be able to help.
Offer support if you can
Tell them you’re available to talk but know your limits. If you don’t think you can respond in a helpful way, don’t leave them on their own. Find someone who can stay with them and talk, such as another colleague who knows them well.
Remind them of their value and express your opinion that things will improve but emphasise the importance of seeking professional help.
When to contact 999
Never leave someone who has expressed suicidal feelings on their own. They may want you to contact a loved one on their behalf to come and collect them, but if they don’t, and you’re concerned that they will take their life, contact 999.
First responders have the skills and experience to support people who are suicidal and they will take them to a place of safety which might include A&E. Responders will also be able to contact the person’s chosen friend or family member so don’t take this upon yourself.
What you should do if the person doesn’t have a plan in place but is feeling suicidal
It’s important to signpost them to help and support and not to take on the role of ‘saviour’. You might consider signposting them to the following:
- Their GP but be sure not to instruct them to see their GP. Instead, ask them “Does your GP know how you’re feeling?”. This is a less directive way to engage them in the conversation.
- Use the signposting sheet to highlight where they can get specialist help. They might like you to offer to sit with them while they make the initial call. You can also suggest a hand gesture they can use when they want you to give them privacy.
- Encourage them to tell a trusted friend or family member how they’re feeling.
Next article: Common questions about suicide in the retail sector