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What Can I Do About Suicide

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Mike Tunstall is a listening Samaritan volunteer and has been for many years. He has developed training material in active listening, supporting suicidal people, Postvention (support after suicide) for use in Samaritans and other organisations. He is creator of several workshops, including The Wall – a visual representation of emotional support, and the Emotional Support Thesaurus – a way to increase emotional literacy in supporting conversations.

In his professional life he is a Mergers and Acquisitions technology specialist, a team and conference facilitator and a trainer and coach in developing physiological and psychological resilience in challenging work environments. He is also probably old enough to know better, but rarely does…..

m: +44 (0) 7770 226645

So Friday 10th September is World Suicide Prevention Day…

…a chance for us to reflect on the tragic loss of people who feel no longer able to live and the shocking fallout on those around them in all constituencies of their lives. At the world level, whilst being temporarily more aware, not all of us feel empowered to influence and alter public health policy and ensure funding; helping find a way so that fewer people die by their own hand and communities around them devastated at their loss…. AND the almost inevitable feeling of betrayal, sadness and failure that goes with “not spotting it” or “not being able to do enough….”

So what can an individual do to make a difference – as a therapist, friend, colleague or just a concerned citizen, spotting something unusual?

Many individuals who deal well with most of their own traumas and that of those around them encounter fear or even freeze when suicide is mentioned and can feel helpless before they even start to try to offer support. But those of us who have learnt to engage with suicidal feelings in the same way as other difficult feelings, would probably see it differently. If you can get past the “difference” between “ordinary” difficult feelings and “suicidal” difficult feelings, the same skills of

  • listening uncritically
  • exploring the feelings
  • allowing expression and
  • simply paying attention to an individual

can support and assist them

So where to start? – Common misconceptions about suicide.

  1. Suicide and intent to die is Binary – you are suicidal or you are not
  • No it isn’t – everybody on the planet is on a spectrum of suicidal feeling.

  • Where you are on that spectrum can change with circumstances, external pressures and over time.
  1. Discussing suicide can make people think about doing it
  • Discussing suicide can no more implant the idea of suicide, than discussing having a cold can give you one
  1. All suicidal expression is “just a cry for help”

  2. All attempted suicides are a “attention seeking behaviours”
  • A cry for help is a cry for help, and the person may or may not have suicidal intent

  • There are unsuccessful attempted suicides

  • There are many sadly successful suicidal attempts that were cries for attention
  1. “Committing Suicide” is a criminal act
  • This is a poor way of describing as it has not been a criminal offense in the UK since 1961.

  • “taking your own life” is a more accurate and less judgemental way of talking about it.

What helps? – An individual approach

Your approach

  1. Whatever your role, start by paying attention and truly listening to what the person is saying
  2. Avoid waiting to speak or offer a solution; there may not be one, and somebody suicidal is less lightly to hear your words of wisdom and might even be alienated by them.
  3. Bearing witness to and “holding” a person by listening and asking supportive gentle questions, can be a way of helping somebody feel less suicidal and better about the world.

Their need

  1. Time, Support, Space and Attention
  2. Being heard is important for everybody, but when you are supporting, it is the client or person being listened to that is important.

Discussing Suicide

  1. Don’t fear discussing suicide, like any other issue in a person’s life and your conversations
  2. Don’t fear “asking the suicide question”. Instead recognise that everybody understands suicide as a concept and work out with the person, where they are on the spectrum of suicidal feeling.
  3. Helping somebody share it, accepting that this is how they feel and discussing it calmly can help a person start to think more openly

Exploring Suicidal feeling and alternatives

  1. Helping them think about options is a great way of opening up and exploring what else they can do instead of taking their own life.
  2. Considering and exploring what else they might consider can help realisation that there is a way of dealing with or resolving it, other than taking one’s own life.
  3. Discussing suicidal feeling and exploring what it means for an individual can help you understand their situation better and maybe likewise let them here themselves say it out loud for the first time. Here are a few examples of useful ways of discussing suicidal feelings – there are many others, better chosen to be natural to you when said in your own voice……
    • Have you felt this way before?
    • How does it feel for you?
    • How is it similar or different to the last time you felt this way?
    • How did it ease or you overcome it the last time you felt this way?
    • What changed?
    • What is different now?
    • Who else are you talking with about it?
    • Who else helps?
    • What else helps
  4. Do you actively wish to die, or do you not wish to be in the situation you are in, and can see no other way out of it?

So, with some advance thought, it is possible to support somebody who is suicidal using the same or similar listening approach as with other life traumas. The immediate threat of dying by their own hand is still there, but if met and accepted as a part of the discussion, an individual can be helped to unwind the “only way” thinking and start to seek other options and support to enact them.

Samaritans envision a world where less people die by their own hand. Whilst the service that they offer 24/7/365, is an important one, so is educating many other people and equipping them with the skills to listen, pay attention and support an individual in crisis. When other specialist professionals are unavailable, the very simple act of a “lay” person offering time and witness to an individual is invaluable. Anybody who stops and thinks and prepares can choose to do that as well.

So I’d say Be Bold – approach that sad person, ask that question, explore those feelings – after all, to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt – you have “nothing to fear but fear itself…..”