According to the World Health Organization, more than 700 000 people die from suicide every year, accounting for 1 in every 100 deaths.
WHO also believes many instances of suicide can be prevented if the right interventions are made in time. Raising community awareness and dispelling myths and stigma is essential for preventing suicide. Megan Potts explores 4 prevailing myths below.
If you or a loved one are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, don’t hesitate to phone a suicide hotline immediately.
In the last few years, we've made considerable strides in mental health awareness and the issues that may affect those with psychological conditions.
However, there's still one topic discussed in hushed voices and behind closed doors. It gets given confusing - sometimes vulgar - nicknames and acronyms that don't really shed light on such a serious topic.
Many of us may have considered suicide. 1 in 4 young people has reported suicidal thoughts. Some of us may have attempted it. And a few of us may have lost someone to it or known someone who has.
It's one of the saddest subjects we encounter, but it's more common than we'd like to admit.
We don't talk about it with anywhere near enough openness. Here's the thing, though - our silence leads to misunderstandings and miscommunication. We bury our heads in the sand too much; we don't draw attention to suicide unless we very much have to. And all this shying away can lead to more lives lost when they could have been saved.
Some of you may not know much about suicide, apart from its definition. More of you may have heard myths, rumours, or judgments about the topic, shaping your view and keeping you silent. So, with that in mind, I'm going to explore the more prevalent myths about suicide and attempt to separate the facts from fiction.
1. If someone is thinking about suicide, it's already too late to do anything
When I first heard this myth, I thought of all the people I knew who'd considered suicide at some stage but are still here. I include myself in this.
The times I've considered suicide have been emotionally fraught periods in my life. There's a saying: "Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary pain." Many of us may cringe at this - possibly because we've heard it so many times that it sounds trite!
Still, the saying does ring with some truth. Don't give up on someone because they're suicidal. We need you to have hope for us when we can't.
2. If you're suicidal, you must be mentally ill
Mental health issues such as major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse disorders have links to suicide.
However, the oft-quoted idea that 80% - 90% of suicides are linked to mental health issues has always been dubious and is fast becoming outdated.
Sometimes, people with no history of mental health issues find themselves experiencing suicidal ideation. Major life stresses, such as unemployment, divorce, death of a loved one, or loneliness, can cause suicidal thoughts and actions.
In any case, the reasons behind suicidal ideation don't matter. Pinning the label “mental illness” to the problem brushes a person's real, scary thoughts under the carpet and further stigmatises mental health issues. If you, or someone you know, has suicidal thoughts, it's vital to access support as soon as possible.
3. Asking someone about suicide may put the thought into their head
Thankfully, this isn't the case for everyone working in the mental health field.
Many mental health professionals have to ask, "Have you had or been having any thoughts of suicide?" almost daily. Sometimes multiple times a day. If someone isn't suicidal, it ends up being a short conversation: "No,"/"Okay, I just had to check." Then both the professional and the patient can move on.
If someone is suicidal, the conversation tends to be much longer. The mental health professional has to ask how far these thoughts have gone, whether there's the intent to follow these thoughts, and much more.
But suicide often comes with persistent and intense emotional and, sometimes, physical pain. It's unlikely you can manifest that degree of turmoil in someone by asking if they're thinking about suicide.
4. People who talk about suicide are doing it for attention
1 in 5 people contemplates suicide at once or more in their life. 17% of people may deliberately self-harm, with or without thoughts of suicide. However, for people (80% to 83%) who've never considered suicide or self-harmed, the concept of either can be bewildering. Even clinicians can be divided on why people report feeling suicidal.
How can someone consider hurting themselves, despite how much pain they claim they're feeling? Using pain to manage pain seems ridiculous. So, the person saying they're suicidal or self-harming must be doing it for attention.
In truth, labelling suicidal ideation or self-harm as "attention-seeking" is both invalidating and dangerous. It can be tough for someone to talk about these feelings, and instant dismissal can make them feel worse.
People who hear about suicidal thoughts, especially if the topic appears to be ongoing, tend to apply the unsympathetic logic that actions should match words. I.e., "If XXX was suicidal, they'd just do it instead of talking about it all the time."
But the majority of people who contemplate suicide don't want to die. Suicidal ideation is the last-resort response to a desperate situation. By talking to you or others about suicide, the person in crisis isn't trying to draw attention to themselves. They're seeking help by bringing it out to the open.
If someone says they're feeling suicidal, every conversation or report needs to be taken seriously.
What to do if someone says they're feeling suicidal
In an emergency
If someone wants to or has attempted suicide, call 999 or the emergency number for your country, and stay with the person until help arrives.
If you're worried that someone is at immediate risk of taking their own life, you should do the following (if you're able).
- Remove anything nearby the person could use to harm themselves.
- Stay with the person.
- Get emergency help.
- Don't try and counsel them - leave that to a professional.
If you feel like you're in danger
You can call 999 and ask for the police to help. You might feel worried about getting someone in trouble, but your own safety must come first.
If someone wants to open up but they aren't in a crisis
When someone mentions suicide - whether it's their feelings or the reported feelings of a friend or family member - it can be difficult to know what to say or do.
You don't have to say much of anything in most circumstances - just be there and willing to listen. You don't need special training or a "fix." Many struggling people will be grateful for a friend that listens and can help in small ways. So, if a friend or loved one opens up to you, it's essential to:
1. Listen. Give your loved one the space to talk and avoid speaking over them if you can. If they struggle to find the right words, don't attempt to fill in the gaps. Be patient and let them know that you're there for them.
2. Stay calm. It's very easy to panic when someone talks about harming themselves. However, panic is contagious; the more panicked you get, the more that will rub off on the person you're talking to. Keep a cool head, as your friend may clam up if they think they're upsetting you.
3. Be patient. Your loved one may not want a heart-to-heart that lasts for hours and may only talk in dribs and drabs. If that's the case, don't try to force any information out of them. Other people may have bottled up their feelings for so long they could talk for a while. Don't try to cut them off or act dismissive. Let them set the pace.
4. Reassure them. That doesn't mean telling someone, "Everything will be okay." They don't feel that, which is why they're currently thinking this way. Instead, tell your loved one they're not alone, and you're there to listen.
5. Don't try and counsel them. Do you think your loved one's feelings could be linked to a recent sad event, childhood, or lifestyle? Keep that to yourself. You're (probably) not a trained therapist, and poking around in someone's memories or business may worsen things.
6. Talk about other things too. Not every conversation with your friend or loved one needs to revolve around mental health or suicidal thoughts. Continue to invite them to social events, send memes and funny messages, and tell them about the important things going on with you. This isn't selfish - it shows your loved one you value them as a friend, partner, or family member. Not just as someone going through a crisis.
7. Offer practical help if you can. Some people going through hard times can neglect their self-care. Ask if you can help with shopping, cooking, cleaning, or childcare. This doesn't mean every day or that you're "on call." But a home-cooked once meal per week or a quick vacuum of the house could mean taking a little bit of the load off your loved one's shoulders.
Whatever the circumstances, if the topic of suicide comes up in conversation, we must use that to open the doors to a larger conversation. That can be a conversation focused on helping somebody with the next steps in seeking support or making sure your friends know they can turn to you if they need support.
Don't shy away – it doesn't work. And you might just be thankful that you've addressed it one day.
If you or a loved one needs further information or support about suicide, the following organisations in the UK have a wealth of resources aimed at education and helping people: