The theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day is reaching out to help other people. Many of us want to, but find the prospect frightening. writes
I run a Suicide Crisis Centre. This means that I’ve been trained to help and support people at risk of suicide. However, I know how different it feels, when it’s someone close to you who is at risk.
For many of us, our first experience of helping someone in suicidal crisis may be within our own family or close friendship group.
We are fortunate if we know that they are having suicidal thoughts, and have a chance to help. Through the work that I do, I’m aware of how many people never disclose to members of their family or friends that they are at risk.
I know how frightening and distressing it can be, when someone you love is in crisis. It is very different from supporting someone in a professional context. Although we care very much for our clients who are at risk, there is some protection from the deep pain which you feel when it is a member of your own family.
Several years ago, I discovered that someone very close to me was in suicidal crisis. This was my first experience of supporting someone in this situation. Every morning I would wake up and wonder if he had survived the night. It was my first thought every morning. I would always feel sick with fear until he came down to breakfast. During the day I could be with him, but at night I felt him slipping away from me. I couldn’t watch him through those dark hours.
I did what we all seek to do in that situation. I loved him, cared for him, spent time with him and listened and supported him, when he felt able to talk. He sought help from his GP, too, and, to my great relief, he slowly recovered.
At our centre we quite often receive calls from distressed family members who are worried about a loved one, and who are caring for them through their crisis. I often wish there was more support for family members in this situation. So often, they don’t know who to turn to for advice. I’m always so glad when they think of asking us. They definitely need support themselves in this highly pressurised role. It is a role that they take on willingly, because they desperately want their loved one to survive, but it is emotionally very hard.
Sometimes family members are afraid to ask their loved one directly if they are feeling suicidal. “I thought it best not to,” one woman told me. It’s so important that we do ask the question “Are you feeling suicidal?” It will not put the idea into someone’s head. It will allow them the opportunity to disclose their risk.
There will also be people in our local neighbourhood who are at risk of suicide. In 2012 I experienced suicidal crisis myself. It was the reason why I set up our charity – because I couldn’t find the right kind of help and could see that something different was needed.
Last week I was speaking to a woman in a neighbouring street. She told me that she had heard that I had been in suicidal crisis in 2012 and had wanted to call round to see me back then. She explained that she was afraid of how I might respond, though. She felt that she might have been rejected and I might have asked her to go away.
I explained to her that I knew she would have been concerned about me, despite not having called round. I understood.
I think there are many reasons why neighbours don’t feel able to knock on the door of a person in their local area who may be vulnerable, especially if they know that they have been feeling suicidal or they have become mentally unwell. Perhaps they feel that they wouldn’t know what to say. Perhaps, like my neighbour, they are afraid of how the person will react.
I’ve spoken before of my wish that there was a person within every street who had a suicide intervention skills qualification. There’s an internationally available qualification called ASIST which some local councils are providing free of charge – but mainly to professionals at the moment. If a person in every street had this qualification, it would mean that there was someone who would be able to offer support, and very importantly, provide advice and help to other neighbours who want to help the person but are worried that they don’t know how to. We could start to grow really supportive communities in this way.
We may also encounter strangers who are at risk. Sometimes we will have come into contact with someone who was feeling suicidal, but will never know that they were. It may be someone you serve in a shop, the person next to you on the train or the person who passes you by on the street. Perhaps that person who asks you for money outside the supermarket. It’s a powerful reason for being kind to everyone you meet, and giving them time.
I’ve written previously about helping a stranger at risk of suicide and the power of concern and kindness in helping a person in this situation: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/joy-hibbins/suicide-we-can-all-help-s_b_17036980.html. Simply approaching someone with the words “Are you okay?” or “Can I help?” can make a difference. And if you can’t find the words after that, your silent presence and the giving of your time and attention communicate so much to the person. You clearly care. They matter to you. Their life matters to you.
Kindness, concern and care. They are powerful weapons in the fight against suicide.