This week's news revealed the UK suicide rate has fallen as whole, but the headlines don't tell the full story. Male suicide rates may have dropped to their lowest level in over 30 years, thanks to more openness and reduced stigma around mental illness in men, yet the number of teenagers taking their lives in England and Wales has risen by 67% since 2010; something Labour’s shadow minister for mental health has described as a "national scandal". Rates of suicide in NHS doctors are also on the up, with female doctors four times more likely to take their own lives than the average Brit.
So if you have a friend, child or family member who seems to be struggling, is it OK to ask them if they're depressed, or even suicidal? In short, yes. Shairi Turner, Chief Medical Officer at Crisis Text Line, says we shouldn’t be afraid to start the conversation, revealing to Psychology Today that the vast majority of research into the subject shows that engaging in open discussions about suicide and depression can actually decrease the risk of a person self-harming or taking their life.
So remember, if you're worried the conversation might be triggering, on the contrary: it could be life-saving. In fact, not talking about mental health reinforces the idea that it shouldn’t be spoken about. “If someone is thinking about suicide, and no one asks them about it, there may be no one to whom they feel safe raising the topic,” Elana Premack Sandler, Associate Professor at Simmons School of Social Work says. “Not bringing the idea of suicide to the surface maintains silence,” and in turn increases the risk.
Experts at the Mayo Clinic concur: “Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.”
If a loved one is struggling with their mental health, the Depression Alliance, a charity that provides support for people affected by depression, says there’s plenty of things you can do to help:
- Let them know you’re there to listen
- Don’t judge them
- Gently encourage them to help themselves – by staying physically active, eating a balanced diet and doing activities they enjoy
- Gather information about the services that are available to them, such as therapy services or depression support groups in their area
- Be patient
- Stay in touch – people who are depressed can become isolated and may find it difficult leaving their home
And if you’re worried that someone is feeling suicidal, then the Mayo Clinic advise the first step is to find out whether the person is in danger of acting on those feelings. Be sensitive, but ask direct questions such as:
- How are you coping with what's been happening in your life?
- Do you ever feel like just giving up?
- Are you thinking about dying?
- Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
- Are you thinking about suicide?
- Have you ever thought about suicide before, or tried to harm yourself before?
- Have you thought about how or when you'd do it?
- Do you have access to weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself?
If your loved one is in need of immediate help, the Mayo Clinic recommends staying with them and calling 999 for assistance. Being there for them is one of the most important things you can do – at a time when they may feel they’re alone, it lets them know there’s someone who cares.
For more advice on helping a friend in need, visit Samaritans.org; If you think a friend or loved one might be suicidal, there are a number of free helplines both you and they can contact for help:
Samaritans (for everyone): Call 116 123
Campaign Against Living Miserably (for men): Call 0800 585 858; 5pm to midnight every day
Papyrus (for people under 35): Call 0800 068 4141, or text 07786 209697; Monday to Friday 10am to 10pm, weekends 2pm to 10pm, bank holidays 2pm to 5pm
Childline (for children and young people under 19): Call 0800 1111; the number won't show up on your phone bill
The Silver Line (for older people): call 0800 470 8090
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