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Suicide awareness – Information for professionals

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How you can make a difference

The need for suicide prevention is at least as great as ever. In the UK, the suicide rate appears to have risen for the first time since 2013, according to new figures from the Office of National Statistics.

Men in their late forties are at especially high risk of taking their own lives and women in this age group are also at relatively high risk.

Suicides among young people are far fewer – but the latest statistics show a troubling increase in recent years. Among 10-to-24-year-old girls and women in particular, there has been an especially sharp rise in the number taking their own lives.

So what is going on – and what can change things for the better?

Suicide and austerity

The latest UK suicide figures are in line with other evidence of the distress people are feeling, such as rates of self-harm and self-reported feelings of shame. Some of the rise in the number of suicides may be due to a change in the rules in England and Wales about how coroners should record suicides. However, it is currently too soon to know what difference the change has made.

Whenever a person takes their own life, there is a complex story behind it.

There is also not a single simple explanation for the increase in the number of people taking their own lives, but it is likely to be linked with economic austerity. We know that suicide rates are linked with people’s uncertainty about their financial futures, unemployment, persistent inequality, loneliness, discrimination and ill-health.

WAIT – how you can help

Prevention is also something that we can all individually help with. A short conversation with another person can sometimes be enough to make the difference between life and death for them.

WAIT’ is one good way to remember how you can support another person who may be suicidal. WAIT stands for:

  • WWatch out for signs of distress and uncharacteristic behaviour
    e.g. social withdrawal, excessive quietness, irritability, uncharacteristic outburst, talking about death or suicide
  • AAsk “are you having suicidal thoughts?”
    Asking about suicide does not encourage it, nor does it lead a person to start thinking about it; in fact it may help prevent it, and can start a potentially life-saving conversation
  • IIt will pass; assure them that, with help, their suicidal feelings will pass with time
  • TTalk to others – encourage them to seek help from a GP or health professional

Discussing suicide and talking about suicidal thoughts may seem like a daunting prospect. You will ask yourself, how can I talk to them about it?

The information below is designed to help you shape these discussions.

People thinking about suicide are usually uncertain about acting on their thoughts of ending their own life. There is often a part of the person that wants to live and a part that wants to die. It is important to hear their pain and work with the part that wants to live to keep the person safe and support them to seek help.

Always allow the person the space to talk.

A person who is thinking about taking their life is usually feeling overwhelming mental anguish and emotional pain. Allowing them the space and opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings can help a person thinking of suicide to feel supported, and may assist them to put things into perspective.

How to start a conversation

It is important to ask the person directly if they are feeling suicidal or if they have been thinking about suicide.

It is a myth that talking directly about suicide will put the idea in their head. Instead, discussing suicide openly and honestly about what you’ve noticed and genuinely asking how they are feeling can give the person the opportunity to take the first steps towards getting the help they need. Listed below are some ideas to help you start the conversation:

  • “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately, is everything ok with you?”
  • “I’m worried about you. I’m wondering if we can talk about what’s troubling you?”
  • “You’ve seemed really (down/sad/angry/unhappy) lately. I’m worried that you might be thinking of hurting yourself or suicide. Can we talk about this?”

Expressing your concerns to someone who is suicidal

  • Let the person at risk know that you are concerned and that you care. Often, knowing another person cares enough to become involved and listen to them can be a great comfort to someone who is suicidal.
  • Let the person know that you have noticed a change in them; A change in behaviour and feelings or something that they have said that might have alerted you. See the NHS suicide warning signs page for what to look out for.
  • It is important to simply describe what you have observed rather than use words that convey judgment such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If the person feels judged, they might feel embarrassed or withdraw.
  • Be honest and genuine in your concern.

Having expressed your concern and conveyed your support, keep the following in mind.

  • Acknowledge that you understand that the person is experiencing a lot of pain at present.
  • Show respect and be as understanding as possible about their situation.
  • Maintain eye contact and open body language.
  • When discussing suicide, ensure you listen carefully to what they have to say. Use active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing what the person has said, reciting it back to them to ensure you understand them.
  • Avoid minimising or dismissing their problems, ensure they know you’re taking them seriously.
  • Avoid using statements such as “You don’t know how lucky you are” or “You shouldn’t feel like that”, these might sound to the person as though you are judging them and minimising how they are feeling.
  • Remind the person that although they may be having thoughts of suicide, they can choose not to act on them.
  • Offer realistic hope, it is possible for situations to improve or change for the better. It is likely that their problems weren’t created overnight, therefore the situation will probably take time to resolve. But their problem is resolvable through other means.
  • If they are feeling suicidal, the next step is to support them to get professional help. You can find a list of confidential helplines and support on the Devon County Council website, with further help available via the NHS Devon Partnership Trust.

What if I think something is wrong but they insist they’re okay? 

Continue to be observant for any warning signs of possible suicidal risk. Trust your instincts and follow through on any concerns or suspicions you have, don’t be afraid to check in with them again if you notice any warning signs.

Ensure that those in the person’s support network know about your concerns and the changes you’ve noticed and are also looking out for any other warning signs.

Make yourself available and reassure the person that you will listen when they are ready to talk.

Should I keep their suicide plans to myself?

While discussing suicide, if the person reveals that they are seriously thinking of suicide and have a plan, it is critical that you seek professional help as soon as possible.

Don’t keep or agree to secrets that could lead to the person harming themselves.

It is important to be firm about your intentions to involve others if they won’t. Tell them that you are taking what they say very seriously and that you can’t keep this information to yourself.

Don’t try to deal with this situation alone, encourage the person to get professional help and support them to do so. It is a good idea to involve the suicidal person in this process as much as possible, as it is important for them to take an active role in resolving their suicidal crisis.

What if they don’t want to talk to a professional?

If the person doesn’t want to talk to a professional and their immediate risk is lower, work with them to identify other supports such as parents, family members, friends, teachers or colleagues.

It is important for the suicidal person to build support around them.

If they don’t agree to seek professional help and the immediate risk is high, you will need to contact emergency services on their behalf regardless of their wishes. Another important thing you can do to help someone who is feeling suicidal is to help them create a safety plan.

In an emergency

If you are with someone who is in immediate danger, or concerned for their safety in any way:

  • Call 999 and request an ambulance. Stay on the line, speak clearly, and be ready to answer the operator’s questions
  • Visit your local hospital’s emergency department.

Never describe suicide as...

  • Selfish
  • stupid
  • cowardly or weak
  • a choice
  • a sin (for example, tell that person he/she is going to hell)

Instead of repeating what someone else has said, first ask yourself

  • What idea of “normal” am I reinforcing?
  • Will it affect whether or not anyone comes to me for help?
  • How does it make me feel if they don’t trust me to help them?

You can’t promise anyone it gets better

Suicide doesn’t discriminate. Depression doesn’t hit a person once and leave when circumstances or environments change. The allure of having an escape through death doesn’t leave just because someone becomes rich or achieves lifelong goals.

If you want to tell someone that it gets better, consider if you’re making a promise you can’t keep. Are you living in their mind? Can you see the future and take away their pain before it comes?

Further support


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