If you think a loved one may be suicidal, it can be tempting to tread on egg shells through fear of making things worse.
But having visible support can make all the difference for someone who’s thinking about taking their own life.
“When a person reaches a point where they feel suicidal, they often lose sight of being able to work through their problems,” a National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) spokesperson tells The Huffington Post UK.
“They can feel completely consumed with hopelessness and often believe those around them will be better off if they are no longer here.
“Talking can really help a person to see a way through this and we would encourage anyone who is feeling low to reach out for help.”
How To Recognise The Signs
“Any of us can reach the point where we think about suicide, either for a nano-second, from time to time or constantly for weeks, months or even years,” Jane Powell, CEO of male suicide prevention charity CALM tells The Huffington Post UK.
“That point can be reached if, for any reason, we feel we’ve lost what we value most. Such events can plunge us into darkness. It can happen very quickly, or agonisingly slowly.”
Powell says the signs of suicide can vary greatly from person to person, with some people becoming irritable or angry while others shut themselves off from friends and family. Alternatively there may be no signs at all.
“They may be the life and soul of the party, laughing and joking, going to work, telling you about their plans, supporting everyone else,” Powell explains.
“Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, then just ask. What’s to lose?”
How To Help
Laura Whitehurst, who attempted suicide in 2014, says the most important thing is to speak to a loved one if you think they’re having suicidal thoughts.
She says when she was at her lowest her “vision became a dark tunnel” and she couldn’t see any option of escape.
“The only option that I could see was to end my life,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“For anyone else looking in who has not experienced these feelings, it sounds illogical, but to me and to many others fighting, it’s the only logical solution your mind can produce.”
At the time, Whitehurst didn’t share these thoughts with anyone, but she believes there may have been warning signs visible to others.
“If you are concerned about a loved one – if they are teary a lot of the time, if they lose interest in everything around them, and if they seem to have lost hope, reach out to them and be that person to listen,” she advises.
Although discussing suicide for the first time can be emotional and confusing for all involved, Whitehurst says it’s important not to display emotions of frustration.
“Don’t shout or get upset with them, even though that may be your first reaction,” she says.
“I dealt with a lot of yelling after my attempt, but mostly because people were angry with themselves that they didn’t notice or angry at me for not talking to them.”
Instead, she recommends calmly sitting down and offering practical support, such as working with your loved one to help them find professional help.
“Provide a lot of hugs and ultimately be patient,” she says.
Natalie Howarth, who’s the director at Maytree, the UK’s first “sanctuary for the suicidal” agrees it’s important not to let your own emotions take over the situation.
“People’s response is shock, disbelief, wanting to fix it, wanting to make it alright and okay for that individual,” she says.
“Callers often say that’s the last thing they need and what they want or need is for the person to say, ‘okay, tell me about it’, but in a way where the family member puts aside their shock, despair, their wanting to fix it, and that is so tricky.”
Powell says asking open questions such as “how bad is it?” and avoiding judgmental phrases such as “you aren’t going to do anything stupid, are you?” can help.
“If they do talk about feeling dark and suicidal, let them know you take this seriously, and that you’d like to help,” she says.
“Even if they don’t feel able to open up in that moment, then tell them that you will be there for them if they ever do want to share.”
She adds that getting the conversation started may be easier if you encourage the person at risk to be part of your life.
“Checking in with someone needn’t end up just reminding them of how vulnerable they are,” she says.
“It can be positive to involve them in what you are doing, letting them know how much you value their practical help and support. It doesn’t need to be a big thing – maybe they could keep you company whilst you walk the dog, help cook a meal, finish an essay, fix up the car, paint the attic. And while you are side by side with them, that’s the time when you can both share and catch up.”
On a practical level, Powell says it’s important to make sure a person is not left alone if you think they are feeling actively suicidal.
You can help them to remain safe by ensuring objects they may use to take their own life are not accessible.
“Don’t be afraid of getting medical help. Either phone the GP surgery (outside surgery hours there will be an out of hours service) or take them to A&E,” she says.
“Above all ensure that either you or someone else stays with them.”
Unfortunately there is no “quick cure” for suicidal thoughts and sometimes, despite your best efforts to help, a loved one may still go on to take their life.
However, Powell says just trying to be there for someone can make a huge difference.
“Those times when a mate, a friend, a partner, has helped you get through a terrible moment, when someone has been a true friend – such moments will be treasured and valued for the rest of their life,” she says.
This is true for Whitehurst, who wrote a blog to celebrate her “first birthday”, a year after attempting suicide.
“Although the tunnel has gotten a little wider and brighter for me, it’s still hard sometimes to fight the feelings that still exist,” she says.
“But with my friends and my partner knowing how to help me through when things do get tough, I know I can talk and receive the support I need.”