How to help someone who is suicidal

Founder of the Suicide Crisis Centre Joy Hibbins writes exclusively for on how to help someone who is suicidal

Today marks World Mental Health Day 2018, and the Prime Minister has announced in her pledge that Jackie Doyle-Price, the current health minister, will become the Minister for Suicide Prevention, a first for the UK.

Theresa May has also revealed in her endeavour to reduce the number of suicides in the UK that there will be new government funding, up to £1.8 million, to support the Samaritans helpline. This will allow it to remain free for the next four years and help to provide 24 hour support to anyone who may need it.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, in response to Jackie Doyle-Price’s newly appointed position, that ‘Every suicide is a preventable death and we are determined to do everything we can to tackle the tragedy of suicide.’

This recognition of the importance of suicide prevention responds to a growing concern over suicide in Britain; an issue that’s becoming increasingly topical.

Indeed, in September this year numerous public figures signed an open letter, urging editors to ‘make a pledge to portray suicide in ways which reflect our modern understanding of this phenomenon that is responsible annually for the deaths of 6,000 people in the UK, and 800,000 worldwide.’

The letter was written by Luciana Berger MP and Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon and has been signed by almost 150 writers, broadcasters and celebrities including Stephen Fry, Will Young and David Harewood.

The open letter describes the dangerous impact that media reports of suicide may have on the vulnerable and how young people in particular are influenced by what they see and hear in the media.

‘We still read that a person has ‘committed suicide’, suggesting suicide is either a sin or a crime, or both,’ the letter states.

‘We call on all sections of the media to replace the phrase ‘commit suicide’ with alternatives, such as ‘died by suicide’, and to embed this change into their style guides. We too promise to use this language when talking about the subject.’

The letter talks about how more needs to be done to educate the public, to tackle taboos and break down stereotypes. After all, it believes that ‘suicide is preventable; we can dramatically reduce the number of people who take their own lives’.

Suicide in Britain

In the U.K, suicide is on the rise according to official statistics, with 6,188 people ending their own lives in 2015, up from 6,122 in 2012. Mental health campaigners say that number could be much higher.

Image of a woman siiting curled up on the ground

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.

Here, founder of the Suicide Crisis Centre Joy Hibbins writes exclusively for 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

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