An illustration of a woman's head on the left asking a man's head on the right, "Are you ok?" and then, again, "Are you really ok?"

Asking about suicide could be the start of a life-saving conversation

It is a common and harmful misconception that talking about suicide might ‘plant the idea’. Here, Rory O’Connor, author of When It Is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It, explains why that's not the case – and offers tips for speaking about it to loved ones, should you ever need to.

I recently took part in the British DJ Roman Kemp’s BBC documentary Our Silent Emergency on mental health and suicide prevention, which saw Roman travel up and down the country, meeting people who have been suicidal or lost a loved one to suicide, as well as speaking to those working at the frontline, supporting people in crisis. The programme was personal for Roman, as he was trying to come to terms with the death by suicide of Joe, one of his closest friends. He also talked movingly about his own mental health struggles, and came to Glasgow to meet me to try to make sense of the tragedy of suicide.

In the film, Roman met a group of young people whose mantra, when it comes to discussing suicide, is ‘Always ask twice’. This is such a brilliant message, as it is so easy to simply say ‘I’m fine’ when asked ‘Are you okay?’ on the first occasion, but it is much more difficult to dismiss if you are asked ‘Are you really okay?’ a second time. Asking twice transcends a specific and harmful myth related to suicide: that asking a friend or family member about suicide plants the idea in someone’s head.

'Asking the question is scary, [but] often the person feels an incredible sense of relief that someone has noticed that they are struggling'

Here are a few tips which I discuss in the book which may be helpful to bear in mind when asking about suicide:

• Try not respond with shock, or disbelief and try not to minimise how they are feeling if they disclose suicidal thoughts or feelings. People who are suicidal often conceal their pain and feel a sense of shame, so anything we can do to help them to feel more connected, valued and less stigmatised could be life-affirming. 

• You don’t need to solve their problems; simply listening and showing compassion can be so important and containing. It is also worth remembering that recognising their pain, validating how they are feeling and acknowledging that it must be difficult for them can be so powerful.

• If they do disclose that they have thoughts of ending their life, consider asking them if they are able to keep themselves safe and encourage them to seek help, perhaps from a professional if they are in acute distress. (If not, ask them to contact their GP or if it is okay for you to do so – and if the person is at imminent risk of suicide, don’t hesitate to contact the emergency services.)

Finally, I have lost count of the number of people I’ve met who have asked the ‘Big S’ question (‘Are you thinking of suicide?’), and despite being reticent to do so at the time, are now convinced that if they had not, their loved one would be dead.

So, please reach in. If you are concerned about a loved one, ask them directly whether they are having thoughts of suicide; it genuinely could save their life. But also, please look after yourself and your own mental health; we cannot support others if we don’t take care of ourselves.

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Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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