The World Health Organisation estimates that 800,000 people die by suicide each year. That is one person dying by suicide every 40 seconds. The true scale of the frequency of suicide attempts is unknown, as many people who survive a suicide attempt never discuss it with health professionals. Although there are no figures available regarding how frequently those who attempt suicide are discovered by other people, anecdotal reports I have heard over the years suggest that this is far from rare.
Research suggests that up to 75% of people who die by suicide have tried to talk to someone in the months leading up to their death. It is likely that many people who are suicidal display some warning signs about how they are feeling – although not everyone knows what to look out for or what to do if they do spot the signs.
One course of action if you are concerned about someone, or wondering if they are having suicidal thoughts, is to take the direct approach and just ask them, “Are you having thoughts about suicide?” or “Have you been thinking about taking your own life?” If they say yes, then you can ask them if they have made plans about how they would take their own life. If someone is having suicidal thoughts, then they need medical attention. If they have made specific plans, then this is an emergency situation.
Call 999 immediately
It’s obvious but the first thing you should do is to call the emergency services. The police and paramedics are experienced at dealing with situations like this and may be able to save someone’s life.
The next step is to start a polite dialogue. If things have already escalated to the point where they are close to taking their life – if, for example, they are on the edge of a bridge – saying things like “please come down” or “please come away from the edge” is a good way to start. Shouting orders at someone is not useful. It is fine for you to ask the person to move to a place of safety. But ask in a way that conveys care and does not convey annoyance. If they refuse to move to somewhere safe, keep talking and ask them again a little later when they have started to calm down. Of course, someone doesn’t have to be standing on the edge of a bridge to feel suicidal.
Listen and be patient
Just being a caring fellow human being can make a huge difference. You don’t have to pretend that you are a counsellor. A genuinely caring response from a person might be sufficient for the person who is having suicidal thoughts to reconsider.
It is OK to ask what has led them to this point. Suicidal feelings arise from prolonged periods of distress. Maybe something in particular happened to them that has left them distraught or overwhelmed. Whatever their answer, don’t judge them.
Simply listening to the person is probably one of the most powerful things you can do. Listening carefully, without interrupting, judging or offering advice and showing care and concern may be all they need to start to feel differently. Even when you are listening carefully and showing your care and concern, it can take a while for someone’s feelings to change and for the intensity of their emotions to subside. Be patient.
Acknowledge and encourage hope
You can be sure that the person in front of you is experiencing terrible emotional pain and has temporarily lost all sense of hope. If you have never felt suicidal, it can be hard to understand how that person might feel. Even so, try to acknowledge their pain by saying things like: “Things must have got really hard for you to feel like this is the only way out.”
It is likely that all a suicidal person can see ahead of them is pain and misery. One way to help encourage a little hope is to say: “I know it be hard to believe, but how you are feeling right now will change.” If you have felt suicidal in the past, and feel comfortable in sharing that information, you could say: “I have felt the same way too and I know from experience things can and do get better.”
It is a common misconception that people who take their own lives are selfish. When someone is so distressed that they want to die, they have usually convinced themselves that actually everyone else would be better off if they were dead. Telling a suicidal person that their death will upset their loved ones may well intensify any feelings of guilt and can make the person feel worse. Similarly, telling someone that they “have so much to live for” can leave the person feeling guilty or can set up a situation where you are arguing with them. Telling someone that feeling suicidal is wrong or sinful is also unhelpful.
Take care of yourself
It is normal to be very upset by finding someone who is about to take their own life. You are bound to feel shaken up and will probably be preoccupied by thinking about it for several days. It is important that you take good care of yourself and speak to someone you trust and who cares about you and what happened.
The Zero Suicide Alliance have produced a short training video on suicide prevention, which can be accessed here. The Samaritans can be contacted in the UK on 116 123. Papyrus is contactable on 0800 068 41 41 or by texting 07786 209 697 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.