How to help someone who is suicidal

The PM Theresa May has pledged more support to the UK’s strapped mental health services to help tackle rising suicide rates. Here, founder of the Suicide Crisis Centre Joy Hibbins writes exclusively for Healthista.com on how to help someone who is suicidal

In her first speech of the new year, Prime Minister Theresa May pledged more support to the UK’s strapped mental health services, in order to tackle the country’s increasing suicide rates.  According to official statistics, 6,188 people ended their own lives in the U.K. in 2015, up from 6,122 in 2014, but mental health campaigners say that number could be much higher.

In 2012, Joy Hibbins tried to take her own life – twice. The available services didn’t work for her and it was clear that something very different was needed, so she set up the Suicide Crisis Centre, to support people who were not accessing any services, and  who had disengaged from mental health services or who had found them unhelpful. Since then, the centre has achieved a zero suicide rate, with no client under their care dying.


Image of a woman siiting curled up on the ground

Here, founder of the Suicide Crisis Centre Joy Hibbins writes exclusively for Healthista.com on what to say – and what not to say – to someone who is suicidal. 

‘It can be very difficult to know whether someone you care about is feeling suicidal. A person who is at risk can be extremely good at covering it up. However, if someone you love seems low in mood or depressed, it’s important to ask the right direct questions to find out the level and immediacy of the risk.

4 potentially life-saving questions to ask

1. ‘Are you feeling suicidal?’  Don’t be afraid to ask this, then move on to the questions below

2. ‘Have you thought about how you would do it?’ You need to know whether they have thought about a method already, because this shows they are further along in their plans. If they say yes, then ask:

3. ‘Do you have it already?’ or ask if they have thought about where they would go, if they specify a location for a suicide attempt. Then ask

4. ‘When are you planning to do it?’ This tells you how immediate the risk is. If it’s today, the quickest way to get help is to take the person immediately to an Accident and Emergency department at the local hospital. Or call 999 or 111 if you cannot take them there yourself.

Silhouette of stressed young women sitting under the tree.

Silhouette of stressed young women sitting under the tree.

Giving support: what’s helpful, what’s not

Let them know how much they matter to you and how much their survival matters to you and to everyone that cares about them. A person who is feeling suicidal may be depressed and this distorts their thinking. They may feel that they are a burden and that people would be better off without them. This is wholly inaccurate, of course.
Emphasise all the things that make them unique and special – all their good qualities, their personality traits – the things they contribute to the world. All these would be lost, if the person died. A person who is depressed will often feel they are entirely worthless. They may no longer be able to see anything positive in themselves and what they bring to the world. You can help them to see how much they matter.
Let them know you are there for them and that you want to help and support them. You may fear that you don’t know the right things to say. You may fear that you’ll say the wrong things. The most important message to give to the person is that you care, and that you want to help. If you make the occasional unintentional unfortunate remark, it will be heard in the much wider context of a person who is really trying to do their best for the person.
Encourage them to seek other help with your support. Offer to call their GP. Call a GP or a crisis service yourself, if they feel they can’t or if they don’t want to. If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, call the NHS number 111 and seek their advice. At our Suicide Crisis Centre we often receive calls from people who want advice on what to do.
It’s understandable that you might feel afraid in this situation. But please don’t let your fear make you avoid asking the right questions about suicide risk or deter you from trying to help.


4 things NOT to say

It’s unhelpful to minimise the situation or to play it down. Take it extremely seriously, always, when someone says they are feeling suicidal.
It can sometimes be hard for a person to hear the words “It will get better” or “You’ll be all right” because it may be impossible for them to envisage that, in the midst of deep depression. It can often be more helpful to let them know you empathise with their situation: “I can hear how extremely low/ depressed/distressed you are feeling”.
Please don’t comment that it is selfish to feel this way. A person who is feeling suicidal is in deep emotional pain. They are thinking in a way they would not think if they were well or if they were not highly distressed. They are not themselves at this point.
The phrase “Stay strong” can be unhelpful, too. It implies that feeling suicidal may be “weak”. It is not about strength or weakness. Every one of us has a limit to what we can endure. A suicidal crisis can happen to any one of us. It takes huge courage to say that you are feeling suicidal and to seek help. We should be emphasising that.
joy-hibbins-for-media-1Joy Hibbins is the Founder and CEO of a charity (Suicide Crisis) which runs a Suicide Crisis Centre in Gloucestershire. For information about the Crisis Centre phone 07975 974455 or visit suicidecrisis.co.uk

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