Do you feel suicidal? Does it sound like a shocking question? It’s one I’ve asked many times. I was a Samaritan for over six years and asked it of callers. Now as a psychotherapist, I ask it of my clients. Last month, when I raised it with a new client, she immediately began to cry. It was as if by asking the question directly I got around the shame she felt for thinking about suicide and gave her the space to talk openly about what she was experiencing. Yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day. The purpose of the Day was to raise awareness that suicide is preventable. One of the big messages was don’t duck the difficult conversation.
According to the World Health Organisation, 800,000 people die every year from suicide. That’s one person every 40 seconds. It means, while you’ve been reading this blog, someone, somewhere in the world may have ended their life by suicide. By the time you get to the end, another two or three people will have killed themselves.
What is the decision-making process? How does someone arrive at the point where they feel they have no alternative but to kill themselves? There are lots of paths and for many they start in childhood if they were not then able to build the resilience we all need to survive what life can throw at us. Ultimately, though, we are individuals. Why we feel the way we feel and the motivations driving our actions are personal. In my experience, one thing that is common is that suicide is not a selfish act. I’ve never met or spoken to a suicidal person who is acting to spite others. They feel they won’t be missed or even that their death will be a relief to those closest to them. They’ll be better off without them.
The incredibly sad thing is suicide is preventable. Someone simply saying hello can be all that’s needed for a person to step back from the edge. It’s this that’s behind the Samaritans relationship with National Rail. Frontline rail staff have been trained to spot and approach someone who maybe thinking of jumping in front of an oncoming train. Engaging with someone contemplating suicide can make all the difference.
What Samaritans, Papyrus, other support services, and psychotherapists do, is address the topic head-on. We’re not afraid to use the words and talk openly about suicide. For us, it’s not a taboo to be avoided at all costs and we know there is a big difference between having suicidal thoughts and killing yourself. The former often represents a powerful need for things to change, that the way things are at the moment is no longer tolerable. Plenty of people have suicidal thoughts at different times of their lives.
People dodge the sadness of others for many reasons. It may trigger their own existential fears and I’ve heard plenty stories of, instead of being allowed and encouraged to grieve in a healthy and cathartic way, the bereft person is offered distractions. Many people feel they have to ‘fix it’ for the other person. Faced with extreme sadness, they try and come up with solutions – join a club, do some exercise, get out more. But it’s not their sadness to fix. They might just turn their back on the distress and talk about bright sides, silver linings and brave faces. Or they might opt for reassurance: “It might seem tough now, but it will get better, everything always does.’ Reassurance never works. Whenever I’ve made the mistake of offering it in psychotherapy, it’s quickly been clear the client has pulled away and our connection is broken. Offering reassurance suggests to them I haven’t really grasped where they’re at.
To someone feeling desperate and alone, who sees suicide as the only reasonable option left to them, these approaches these simply increase the isolation. It makes it completely clear that the other person doesn’t get it and, what’s worse, it suggests they are not interested in understanding them. It’s the deeply felt experience of loneliness that’s the real killer.
So be brave and upfront. Ask someone what’s going on for them and be willing to hear the answer. It doesn’t make it your problem to solve and it doesn’t mean you have to take on their pain. Just listening and offering a safe space in which they can talk makes a huge difference. And finally, care much more about trying to understand them and their experience than the precise words you use. They’ll feel that care deep inside and it will be more powerful than you imagine.
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor.