Why we need to talk about suicide – and how you can help those at risk
Suicide rates in the UK are on the rise again after declining for several years, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Rates in 2018 and 2019 were the highest they have been since the early years of the century. And the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic seem likely to mean they will rise still further. We look at the facts, what to do if you feel suicidal, and how to help others who are at risk.
Who is most at risk of suicide?
Men are three to four times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to suicide prevention charity the Samaritans. Less financially well off, middle-aged men are the highest risk group (according to the most recent figures). It’s not certain why this is but men may find it harder to talk about their feelings and seek help with their mental health. Issues such as unemployment and difficulties finding another job in middle age may also play a part.
While young people are less likely to take their own lives, rates have been rising in the 10-24 age group since 2010. Studies have shown an increase in self-harm among young people, possibly driven by the mounting educational and social pressure they are under today. This is worrying, as those who self-harm are 17 times more likely than their peers to die by suicide.
Is the rise in suicide rates due to the Covid-19 pandemic?
The latest suicide figures were collected before Covid-19 and figures for 2020 are not yet available. However, it’s clear that the pandemic is having a negative effect on mental health [link to article 1] and this may contribute to a rise in rates. The Samaritans say that from March to September 2020, one in five of their calls have been from people who were specifically worried about Covid-19. Studies have shown that suicides increase following pandemics and economic crises, as was the case in many countries after the 2008 economic crisis.
What to do if you have thoughts of suicide
If you consider ending your life, feel that other people would be better off without you or that your life isn’t worth living, it’s important to tell someone how you’re feeling.
Call your GP or NHS 111.
Stay around other people. If you think you might act on these suicidal thoughts and you live alone, go to a safe place, such as a friend’s house. Suicide risk counts as a medical emergency so it’s OK to do this, even during lockdown.
Avoid using alcohol or drugs. as they can make suicidal feelings worse. They can also reduce inhibitions making it more likely that you will act on suicidal impulses.
Signs that someone may be at risk of suicide
Many things can lead someone to consider suicide. These include mental health problems such as depression, bereavement or another form of loss, family breakdown or financial problems. The suicide of someone known to them, or of a public figure, can also act as a trigger.
Sometimes the person may say they have thought about suicide or that they don’t see the point of going on and this should always be taken seriously. Other warning signs that they are struggling and need support can include:
Withdrawing from others, and not replying to messages.
Talking about feeling hopeless, worthless or a burden to others.
Behaviour that’s out of character, such as outbursts of anger, irritation, or aggression.
Use of alcohol or drugs to blot out their feelings.
How to help someone who is feeling suicidal
Learn how to spot the signs. Trust your gut as early intervention can be crucial.
Ask them directly if they’re feeling suicidal. This may be difficult, but research suggests it often helps as it gives them permission to talk about it and shows them you are accepting of their feelings. A common myth is that talking about suicide can make things worse or provide the sufferer with ideas, but studies show that isn’t the case. Talking about it directly won’t worsen the risk.
Actively listen to them and ask open questions that don’t just require a yes to no answer, such as, ‘Tell me how you’re feeling about…’. Show that you’re listening by summarising what they’ve told you and saying it back to them.
Make sure they know you’re there for them, even if they don’t want to talk at that point.
Help them to create a support network of other friends, family members or health professionals that they can contact when they need to. It’s important not to take on all the responsibility yourself. Let them know if there are times when you can’t be there for them.
Call an ambulance on 999 if you think the person is in immediate danger. Stay with them, or stay connected by phone or online until the ambulance arrives.
Suggest where they can find extra help. Samaritans has a list of organisations that can offer support with specific issues, from benefits and housing to issues such as addiction and sexual identity.
Remember to look after yourself as well if you’ve been supporting someone.
Feel you have to provide solutions to their problems.
Tell them to ‘snap out of it’, or tell them they shouldn’t feel that way – these kinds of responses are unhelpful and can be hurtful.
Promise to keep what they've told you a secret.
Try to fill every silence in your conversation. It could be that they’re struggling to put their thoughts and feelings into words so give them time.
Talk lots about yourself, or what you did in a particular situation. Everyone’s experience is different and yours might not be relevant to them.
Be aware that suicidal thoughts may signal a serious and acute condition. At Benenden Health we don’t offer the intensive help you might need – we urge anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts to contact their GP or Samaritans.
You can find more help and advice on the following websites
Papyrus – Prevention of Young Suicide
CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably
Read our article about two friends and their suicide awareness campaign.