What can we do about suicidal thoughts?
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
With Monday 10th September marking World Suicide Prevention Day across the globe, I have been asked by Just RIFLES to put pen to paper on my thinking around suicidal thoughts, both from the perspective of someone having them and what to do if you suspect that someone else might be having them. While I personally haven’t had suicidal thoughts, I have supported a number of people who have been experiencing them, or who have attempted to take their own life, and have thankfully been unsuccessful.
I would like to point out that I am not qualified by any formal body. I have had no specific training in this area. However, what I have found is that being comfortable with being just another human being, who is available, who cares, who is prepared to listen, and is not frightened can be hugely helpful. I hope that what I am about to write will help others see why…
As human beings we are blessed with an amazing brain that can churn out thoughts without us having any control over their content. We can be happily working away, or having fun – on occasions, both at same time – concentrating on the fun in hand and in pops a dark thought that appears to ruin the moment… I expect we can all relate to that in some way. Some of us can shrug it off as an unhelpful thought that does not add value to the moment we are in. Others can be consumed by that dark thought. For some, when those dark thoughts keep coming back and replaying, over and over, they can start to believe the content. If that thought is telling you that you are worthless, unlovable, a failure, a waste of space, that the world will be better off without you and you believe it, it can lead people down the road to taking their lives.
This cycle is described amazingly by Kevin Hines who is lucky to have survived his attempt to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Kevin really wanted to live, but the voices [the thoughts] in his head were telling him to kill himself: unfortunately those thoughts won. In this short clip Kevin explains how he felt in the run up to jumping off the bridge, the instant regret he felt as soon as he let go of the bridge, and his determination to help others who find themselves faced with similar circumstances.
Thankfully Kevin’s story of survival isn’t completely unique. A young British Army Veteran attempted to take his life in April 2018 by jumping in front of a train, but thankfully survived to tell his story. While Perry Tatler is still in hospital 5 months after his attempted suicide, he has taken the bold step to tell his story; of the anguish he felt saying goodbye to his children and the subsequent guilt he felt for what he put the train driver and other witnesses through. In this article in the Daily Mirror from 16th September Perry describes that he felt so low, that he felt he didn’t have a choice after bottling his feelings up for a long time. Perry’s reason for speaking out is to encourage others who are struggling to seek help and for all of us to ask each other if we’re OK.
What I have learned from talking to others about their suicidal thoughts, from taking part in an amazing series of webinars by Dr Bill Pettit and from the recent BBC Horizon documentary on “Stopping Male Suicide”, is the simple act of talking to someone, to taking the time to ask the simple question “are you feeling suicidal/OK?” can be enough to help someone change direction.
When we are stuck in dark, unpleasant and self-destructive thoughts, that focus on innocently dreamt up expectations of what we could be, how we should behave, that we should be more like X, that we should have achieved Y or that we are worthless, we have a tendency to keep them to ourselves and that the only dialogue we have about them take place in the confines of our own heads. However, when we either seek, or are offered, the opportunity to talk about them the thoughts starts to look and feel very different once they have been said out loud: the thoughts lose some of the power that we’ve innocently given them.
While researching for this blog, I was shocked to hear some of the statistics that Dr Xand Van Tulleken mentioned in the BBC documentary aired at the end of August:
¾ of suicides in the UK are men, but more women attempt suicide
Globally someone dies from suicide every 40 seconds
Someone dies as a result of suicide in the UK every 90 minutes
For every successful suicide attempt there are 20 failed attempts
Suicide is THE BIGGEST KILLER of men in the UK under 50… (more than cancer… more than traffic accidents)
Unfortunately, we currently live in a world where people can feel completely isolated despite being surrounded by people and in almost 24/7 contact with them via the internet. A world where everyone is perceived as being busy, where we are reluctant to disturb them, or burden them with our worries. One recurring idea that the people I speak to as a coach or as a friend is that they either aren’t ready to speak, and/or that they’ll come when they’ve sorted “it” out; whatever “it” is. What I have found is that just being with that individual – be it in person, on the phone, or via facetime – and just being quiet together, and being personally comfortable in that silence, can be enough to get the conversation started, for that human connection to kick in and for the perspective of the “it” to change.
We also are told that thinking positively or turning negative thoughts in to positive thoughts is all we need to do. Life just isn’t like that. Our thoughts come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. Some feel good, some don’t. That’s normal; it’s completely fine! The critical part to remember that they are all neutral: no one thought has more weight than any other; that only happens when we become aware of them in our consciousness and we then innocently start making them important.
The key is to recognise that words like positive, negative, optimist, pessimist, realist etc are all just labels and that they come with socially understood pre-conceptions. Whilst they may help us to understand our feelings, they don’t define us. We are completely allowed to feel pessimistic about something, but knowing that that is just how we feel about “it” now is the thing to remember. Tomorrow, in 10 minutes, in the next second, our thinking could change about “it” and so can our feelings: we could swing from pessimism to optimism. If that is conceivably true, then feeling suicidal right now, is just how we feel right now. We didn’t feel like that yesterday and we might not feel like it in a minute’s time. It’s a warning sign to slow down, to give our self the permission to look for someone to talk to.
So what can we do to help? None of us know what thoughts are going to pop in to our own heads, or how we’re going to react to them, so we have little chance of knowing what’s going on in someone else’s head. The good news is that we can never be affected by someone else’s thinking – if that was the case we would all suffer as a result of the films and television programmes we watch and from the books and news stories we read. So if someone looks like they are struggling you can just ask them how they feel, or even if they feel suicidal: it’s not something you can catch.
One of the best things we can ever do for each other is to offer to listen to others without judgement, or the need to have ‘the solution” or “the answer”. Suicide is a topic that people usually shy away from; “it’s a scary topic!”, “I wouldn’t know what to do!”; well it’s just another label that has become socially awkward to address. If we look beyond the label, we’ll see another human being, just like us, who is a little lost and in need of love. Just being there, remaining neutral and connected is enough to help; and potentially to save a life.
If we can remove the stigma that has been built around the topic of suicide perhaps we can change the statistics I mentioned earlier.
I hope this helps people see beyond the label and empowers them to offer help. More importantly; if you are feeling completely alone, that you are running out of options and that you are having suicidal thoughts, I hope that this well help you take the step to looking for someone, anyone to speak to.
Take care and look out for each other.
Some useful links:
Dr Bill Pettit’s podcast on Suicidal Ideation or a short extract from the same podcast where Bill answers a question from an attendee on the webinar “How do I stop wanting to die?”. Dr Pettit is a US based Psychiatrist and 3 Principles Practitioner.
A TED Talk entitled A love letter to realism in a time of grief
The Samaritans phone number 116 124
The Ministry of Defence Mental Health 24/7 phone line 0800 323 4444
A personal request [no longer live]: I am a former soldier who works to support other veterans and service personnel who are living with PTSD and other problems. I would be very grateful if you would consider signing this Government petition to make it a legal requirement for Coroners to record the suicides of veterans as Veterans. Currently there is no official record of veteran suicides which makes it very difficult to see if there is a disproportionate number of suicides in this demographic compared to the National average. If you sign thank you, if you chose not to I fully respect your decision: it’s one of the joys of living in a democracy.