The stigma surrounding suicide may be slowly decreasing, but we have a long way to go, says Izzy Anwell of Dorset Mind
TRIGGER WARNING: References to suicide and self-injurious behaviours which some people might find disturbing. If you need support, contact your GP or talk to The Samaritans on 116 123 or Dorset’s Connection on 0800 652 0190. For crisis help call 999 – or get to A&E if you can do so safely.
The stigma surrounding suicide is entrenched and globally recognised. Up until the early 1960s suicide was a crime, and anyone who ‘attempted’ and ‘failed’ could be arrested and prosecuted. Although suicide is no longer illegal, the topic is still shrouded in shame and tarred with a similar brush. Even the phrase ‘to commit suicide’ perpetuates the narrative; the word ‘commit’ itself implies illegality.
According to the Office of National Statistics there were 5,691 suicides registered in England and Wales in 2019, three quarters of whom were men. Three years on, this statistic has changed very slightly – the social stigma is reducing, people are reaching for help and the conversation surrounding mental health is finally becoming more normalised.
Simply starting a conversation can begin to interrupt the cycle of suicidal thought and help a person see that taking their own life is not the only option. It is important to remember that some people do not necessarily want to die. It is rather that they feel that suicide is the only option, in order to free themselves from their circumstances.
How to begin
Sometimes those struggling just do not want to talk or be open about how they feel. If you fear they cannot keep themselves safe, it might be necessary to bring in trained support such as crisis teams and safeguarding professionals. If you can start a conversation, first choose an environment that is familiar and quiet – mutual comfort is important, as is talking openly without fear of interruption or others overhearing.
Also choose your timing. Trying to get someone to talk about their feelings when they are stressed or upset is not going to work. Make sure they feel safe and calm before you begin.
The most important thing to remember is just to listen. Active listening can be difficult, especially when you may be able to offer help. However, there is power in letting the person in distress feel heard, in giving them permission to talk through what is going on in their head.
It is also important to consider your non-verbal communication. If you as the listener are stressed, distracted or physically closed off, it may cause the speaker to feel that you are not interested. Open body language begins with the face – try to start with a raised brow and open eyes, giving good eye contact. This will signal that you are focused and listening. Make sure your body is facing towards the person with an open chest and palms, and with your feet flat on the floor. If this positioning feels too intense, try sitting beside the person instead.
No advice thanks
Next, try not to give unsolicited advice. When someone is struggling, what they often want is someone to listen, not someone to tell them that they are doing the wrong thing. It is important for you to simply listen. Then, if appropriate, validate their feelings and give support.
Finally, remember to look after yourself too – we all have a tendency to throw ourselves into the fray in order to relieve some of the weight. But we cannot anticipate what effect that will have on our own mental health. If you do struggle as a result, reach out in your turn and share your feelings with someone else.
Dorset Mind has 1-2-1 and group support that you can access via their website: