Minister for suicide won’t solve mental health crisis
Eighteen people will die in the UK and Republic of Ireland today as a result of taking their own life. With 25 times as many people feeling suicidal, but not acting on this.
The scale of the problem, which makes suicide the leading cause of death for young people aged 20- to 34-years-old, has now become so serious that last month it prompted the government to announce the appointment of the UK’s first-ever Minister for Suicide Prevention.
Although this might seem like a good idea, the reality is that by the time someone is prepared to end their own life several opportunities to support them have already been missed.
Contrary to popular belief, people who are suicidal don’t want to die. But neither do they want to live because of the emotional pain that they’re currently experiencing. This is an important distinction, because if you can direct them towards appropriate support, before they act on their feelings of hopelessness, you can give them the opportunity to find another way out of their pain.
Unfortunately, many people who are having suicidal thoughts don’t ask for help because suicide remains an incredibly taboo topic in our society. But there are several things you can do to help identify and support those at risk.
How to reduce the risk of someone committing suicide
1. Destigmatise the issue
Although talking about the specifics of how someone might have committed suicide isn’t a good idea, as this has been proven to inspire other suicides using the same method, talking about suicide in general is actually a good thing.
Most people have thought of suicide from time-to-time and you don’t have to have a mental health problem to feel suicidal. Often the feelings are temporary, which is why people in the armed forces or medical profession are at much greater risk of suicide – because they have the means to act on suicidal thoughts, before the feeling of wanting to end their life can pass.
By educating employees and managers about the scale of the problem and ensuring anyone feeling this way knows how to access free support, via the confidential counselling offered via the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or helplines such as the Samaritans, you can give people another option. The option to talk to someone about how they feel.
People who have felt suicidal typically say what a huge relief it is to be able to talk about what they’re experiencing. Once they start talking to someone, they can also start exploring other options for improving their life, or at least how they’re feeling right now.
2. Act on any alarm bells
Everyday people make meaningless threats, saying things like “I’m going to kill myself if I can’t get this printer to work,” or “My life won’t be worth living if I’m late for dinner again.” But if someone has said they want to die, or talked about plans they might have put in place to end their life, that needs to be acted upon.
People who threaten suicide are not attention seeking and should always be taken seriously. It might be that they want attention, in the sense of calling out for help, but giving them this attention might save their life.
That’s not to say that you have to attempt to counsel the person or take on their problems yourself. Rather, you have a duty of care to ensure they’re directed towards appropriate support. This might mean you calling the EAP or charity helpline yourself and handing over the phone for them to start talking.
If you’re concerned that someone is in immediate danger, it’s okay to call the emergency services via 999 or your local hospital and ask for the crisis team. You could also take them to A&E or call someone they know to stay with them.
It’s unlikely that you will be able to make their feeling go away, but by keeping them safe and helping them to think of some things that are worth living for, you can help to reduce the immediate risk.
3. Keep an eye out for warning signs
A change in someone’s personality and behaviour might be a sign that they are having suicidal thoughts. Changes can include:
- becoming anxious, irritable or confrontational
- having mood swings
- acting recklessly
- experiencing sleep issues
- having more problems than usual with their work
- saying negative things about themselves
People at more risk of suicide might also threaten to hurt of kill themselves, talk about death, dying or suicide, or be actively looking for ways to end their life, including making a detailed plan for how to do this.
If you’re in any way concerned, take them to one side and compassionately ask them how they are. You don’t need to completely understand why they’re feeling the way they do, just listen and let them know that you care about them and that they are not alone. Reassure them that they will not feel this way forever and signpost them to places where they can get help, such as the EAP, their GP, or OH.
Don’t try to cheer them up, belittle their feelings, brush their concerns aside or tell them they have no reason to feel the way they do. Try to see the world from their perspective, without judging, criticising or offering unsolicited advice.
If you’re not sure whether or not they’re feeling suicidal, you could ask:
- “Are you thinking about suicide?” or
- “Are you having thoughts of ending your life”
Although this might be an uncomfortable conversation to have, it will bring the issue out into the open so that they can start to get help.
4. Get their rational brain working
It can also be helpful to ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how safe are you right now?’ This can help someone who is trapped in feelings of despair get their cognitive functions working again, which is important as someone in the grip of an emotional crisis and feelings of hopelessness will not be thinking rationally. Anything you can do to get them to use their reasoning while you get help can stop them from acting impulsively.
When we take calls from suicidal individuals, we often get them to describe the room they’re in or what they’re wearing. This gets their rational thinking back online while we can get help to them or start the process of getting them to think about the things in their life that are worth living for (which nearly always comes down to someone they care about, such as their children, their family or a pet they love).
Once they’re out of immediate risk, it’s important to get them to describe in detail what the rest of their day will look like: where they’ll be going next, who they’ll be seeing, what they’ll be having for dinner. Encourage them to talk to someone about how they’re feeling as soon as possible.
People who are having suicidal thoughts can sometimes believe they’ve never been happy and don’t know how to feel positive. So even if they’re divorced and alone, it can be helpful to remind them of a time when they experienced joy, such as the day they got accepted into university, or when they got married or had their first child. Maybe they’re not enjoying life now – but there will have been times when they were happy in the past. Reminding them that they’re capable of feeling positive and have it in them to feel like this again can help to give them hope in the future.
5. Put in place a compassionate continuity plan
Knowing how to handle someone attempting to jump off the sixth floor at work is not an easy thing to do. Like most traumatic events, providing the appropriate response in the heat of the moment is dependent on having already created a plan to deal with such an event, including what the company would do if that situation arose and who would be best placed to handle it. You should also consider what to say to colleagues witnessing events or how best to get in touch with the person’s next of kin or the emergency services.
Companies that have such initiatives in place call them compassionate continuity plans. Their aim is to think through in advance any event that has the power to not only disrupt the business, but also traumatise employees. And a suicide taking place at work has the potential to do both.
By thinking through in advance how best to handle someone feeling suicidal and, should the worst happen, how best to support anyone witnessing such an event, the company can handle potentially distressing situations sensitively and effectively, to minimise the impact of a traumatic event in the workplace.
In the event that someone takes their own life at the weekend, or outside of work, compassionate continuity planning should also consider in advance sensitive issues, such as how best to communicate what’s happened, deal with the news appearing on social media, support colleagues that might be blaming themselves for not noticing that the person was feeling suicidal and how best to represent the company at the funeral.
Only by preparing for the worst, talking openly about the issues and routinely enquiring into the wellbeing of people who we suspect to be at risk can we prevent more people from unnecessarily ending their own lives.
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If you would like a free and confidential consultation on how to prepare your organisation, HR or managers how to deal with the growing problem of suicide, please contact us via email [email protected] or call YY.