With the recent publication of data from the Office for National Statistics revealing that 6,507 suicides were registered in 2018, marking a 12% rise from 2017 and the highest rate since 2002, it is understandable that society is asking how we can change this.
In 2018, two thirds of people who chose to take their lives had not engaged with any clinical support, either primary or secondary care, including their GP. This means that they had no formal mental health intervention beforehand. Equally, they had no opportunity to seek treatment or medication to support their recovery.
This shows that despite all the progress made towards destigmatising suicide, we still struggle to reach out for support when it is needed.
I am fortunate enough to be able to support suicide prevention from a strategic perspective in my professional role and in the past I have provided frontline support via a well-known telephone service to those in distress, as well as holding lived experience as a young person.
Here are some of the insights I have accumulated over the years around suicide, which I feel are important to share:
- Suicide can affect any one of us: men and women, university students, children, BAME communities, medical professionals, mental health advocates, new mums, the list goes on. There are stories of suicide marbled throughout society. One consistency is that suicide does not discriminate. There isn’t a marker that creates immunity to feeling overwhelmed. You may think it will never be you, or the people that you love, but please know that anything can happen. According to experts, every suicide impacts 1,000 people. With this in mind, the impact of suicide affected over 6.5 million people in the UK last year alone. There is every chance you will be directly or indirectly affected by suicide in your lifetime, as will those around you. This is why suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility.
- It’s not always what someone says, it’s what they don’t say. It may seem like there is absolutely nothing wrong with the person that is feeling suicidal. Stories in the media about people who have chosen to end their lives often provoke expressions of shock and disbelief. Loved ones rationalise that there were no obvious signs. In fact very much the opposite. Good careers, happy relationships, positive attributes, and excellent school grades are not always indicative of happiness or the ability to remain resilient when in distress. Sometimes, perfectionism can be just as much of an indicator of distress as the typical signs we look for such as sadness or becoming withdrawn. Check in on everyone you know, especially those that keep saying ‘I’m fine’.
- Providing anonymity is critical to suicide prevention. Over the years I have spoken to so many adults and children who have chosen to reach out because they knew they were in full control of the disclosure. Often, we see anonymity as a safeguarding risk, but those engaging with services are just the tip of the iceberg. A far greater number of people we do not know about are self-managing, struggling, and not engaging in professional support for a number of reasons, often based around fear. It is a social responsibility to provide accessible support to those who wish to engage, but perhaps aren’t ready to share their personal details and enter into a formal mental health intervention. Having someone to talk to is the first step to recovery. By providing support to the person experiencing suicidal thoughts in a way that they feel safe to engage with, we increase the chances of de-escalating the level of risk they pose to themselves.
- Discussions around suicide need to start earlier. Data from Kooth, open to children and young people in 130 clinical commissioning groups, shows that 3,213 young people presented with suicidal thoughts and 3,401 with self-harm last year. My own son was just 10 years old when he disclosed that his friends had been talking about suicide in the playground. Social media, films, celebrity culture, and even the news have made suicide far more accessible to children and young people. As a parent, I cannot advocate more strongly the importance of getting in there first, ahead of all these other information sources. We can control the introduction to suicide in a sensitive and informed way that we know our own child can understand. It is important to have open and honest conversations around feeling overwhelmed, what it feels like and how to cope when experiencing sadness and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to reflect upon your own experiences and, if you are going through something yourself currently, be mindful that the way you handle this can influence how your child responds to distress. It’s important to normalise mental health and how we all face difficulty at times. This takes away some of the uncertainty for children experiencing distress themselves. Be open and honest, and share your experience and insights where you have seen positive impact yourself as well as information about the support available and how to access it.
- Suicide is everyone’s business. There are plenty of sources to help guide your discussions as an employer, a parent, a friend, and even as a stranger in the street who spots someone you feel could be at risk. Organisations like Samaritans, Young Minds, Papyrus, and Mind all provide free resources and information to help you grow your own knowledge around suicide prevention. There is also free training available via The Zero Suicide Alliance which can be completed online, and ASIST training is available nationally as a workshop to help support you in having those critical conversations and creating safety plans. Don’t wait until you personally encounter suicide. This is a topic that is relevant to us all, and the more we understand it, the more we can collectively contribute to prevent it from happening.
We know more work is needed to understand the causes of suicide and to apply better prevention strategies. As Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of Samaritans, said: “We know that suicide is not inevitable; it is preventable, and encouraging steps have been made to prevent suicide, but we need to look at suicide as a serious public health issue,” adding “Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy that devastates families, friends and communities.”
Laura Brown, XenZone