Why Are We So Scared Of Suicide?

It’s the biggest killer of men under 45, of young people aged 5 to 19 and both male and females under 35.

There is, on average, one suicide every two hours. That’s 6000 a year in the UK. 

16 people are thought to be affected by each suicide.

1 in 5 of us experience suicidal thoughts. Although let’s face it: the number is probably far higher.

The social and economic cost of one suicide is estimated at £1.5 million.

And yet we are still so scared to talk about it. Call it stigma, taboo, not the done thing…

Whatever the reason, it’s about time we got over ourselves and starting speaking about something that’s threatening more lives than any disease, or accident amongst an extremely large percentage of our population.

And I get it. It’s not that easy. We don’t know how to talk about it.

And even those of us who do talk about it might struggle when confronted with the reality of a close friend, family member or colleague disclosing an indirect experience of a suicide, or even worse, that they themselves are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Last week I attended ASIST training – Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training – a research based framework used all over the world as suicide first aid. Which essentially means understanding how to use conversation to intervene and prevent someone from taking their life.

Like most people in the room, I wasn’t new to suicide. My uncle took his life seven years ago, a friend of mine has attempted, other friends have disclosed suicidal thoughts to me and I spend two days per week working for Mind on a project to support men at risk of suicide.

The core premise of the training wasn’t new to us either – we need to be direct, open and honest when we’re talking about suicide and particularly when we’re trying to ascertain whether someone who might be displaying suicidal thoughts or behaviours has an intent and plan to complete their suicide.

And yet, despite that, all of us in the room struggled to ask the direct question when confronted with role plays to put the learnings into practice: “are you thinking about suicide?”

We skirted around it – “tell me what you mean by that”, “what do you mean you don’t want to be here anymore?”

None of us were up front about asking: “Are you thinking about suicide?” or “Do you want to take your own life?”

I thought about why this could be. It’s not rocket science – it’s why we were all there in the room…

If someone says yes, what the fuck are you supposed to say next? How do you talk about it? What can you say that might change their mind?

I’m going to be honest. It’s terrifying to think you might be responsible for a potential life and death situation. Even in the role plays we were asked to do as part of the training, my palms felt sweaty and my heart was pounding as we had to use the framework we’d learnt to keep the person safe.

But here’s the thing. The fact that it’s scary and we don’t know what to say or do is the EXACT reason why we need to be talking about this more.

We aren’t going to increase suicidal thoughts or behaviour by talking about it but we might just be able to reduce it if everyone understood exactly what to say and do in a situation where someone was at imminent risk of suicide.

Because it’s not what you think.

We’re so used to jumping to problem solving mode, or citing all the reasons why things aren’t as bad as they seem when we’re talking to anyone who might be experiencing any negative emotions.

But that just doesn’t cut it for suicide. We have to hold space for that person to sit with their feelings, explore them, express them and acknowledge their reality. We have to connect with them about how they are actually feeling in that moment. Only then do we have any hope of exploring anything that might help keep them safe for now and help them to make an alternative choice.

What became clear for me, and for everyone in the room last week, was that the more we talked about suicide, and the types of questions to ask in a crisis situation, the more comfortable we became. Because we’d normalised it. It was no longer a taboo. The words didn’t feel strange coming out of their mouth. They no longer held power over us. And we knew exactly how to respond to be the best support we could be in that moment.

My wish is that we all get a lot more comfortable talking about suicide. Because it’s taking our loved ones from us. And we need to stop running from the problem and tackling it head on.

For anyone who is interested, I’d be happy to share my learnings from ASIST – you can reach me on steph@hellostephslack.com. 

Steph Slack