The Samaritans urge people who are struggling to speak out about their problems, claiming that isolation only makes things worse. But if someone is feeling suicidal, how easy is it to speak out? And if someone is brave enough to tell someone about these feelings, how can it help?
Troubled by the suicide of a fourteen year old girl, the vicar Chad Varah set up the Samaritans in 1953, hoping that he could help people who were contemplating suicide. However, 62 years later, the number of suicides in the UK is on the rise, and recent figures put this at 11.9 suicides per 100,000 of the population.
Most studies are in agreement that the reasons for a person’s suicide are often complicated, and it is often not possible to point to a single factor. What we can say from the statistics is that there are certain groups for whom suicide may be more common (for example, there are 3.5 male suicides for every 1 female suicide in the UK). In ‘Preventing suicide in England: Two years on’ (February 2015) the Department of Health identified the highest rates of suicide amongst the population “in the North and South West of England”. They also found that “middle-aged male rates have risen most since 2008, “among younger men…suicide remains a leading cause of death” and “there is also the alarming rise in self-inflicted deaths of prisoners after the previous fall”.
And what would the Samaritans say? When discussing the statistics on suicide, they say that there is a significant amount of under-reporting of suicide because deaths are often misclassified. For example, the death will be classified as accidental or undetermined intent if a coroner cannot conclusively establish whether there was intent to take their own life.
The Samaritans was established in 1953 when suicide was still a crime. The laws might have changed but suicide is still considered by many to be a taboo subject. We often hear people refer to someone ‘committing suicide’, as if the tragic case of someone dying by suicide (the phrase the Samaritans prefer) is still a criminal act.
A great deal of anxiety surrounds conversations about suicide, as if discussing it might trigger someone to feel suicidal when they would not ordinarily consider this as an option. Some have referred to this anxiety as ‘inner wobbliness’, and when this is reinforced throughout structures such as the workplace and the media, it becomes ‘institutionalised moral judgment’ (Dale: 2005). Too quickly an opinion is formed that certain topics are out of bounds, and that talking about them is considered to be too risky. And yet it is the silence and isolation that kills.
So if it is the silence that kills, how can talking help? Here are a few thoughts –
• Someone can hear the depth of your anguish. Too often our thoughts and feelings are dismissed or reduced by unhelpful phrases such as: ‘I am sure things will work out somehow’ or ‘Look on the bright side’. If someone truly acknowledges the depth of your pain, allowing it to come into the room, sometimes that can help to lessen its potency.
• It normalises things. It is not shameful, and it is more common than you think, for people to have suicidal thoughts. If you talk to someone who listens to you without judgment, you can see that you are not alone, and that having these thoughts does not make you a failure.
• It allows you to see that these are just thoughts. Thinking about something does not make it happen. And talking about thoughts does not mean that you are acting on them. If you talk about your thoughts, sometimes you can see that these are just thoughts, and sometimes you realise that they are as temporary as many other thoughts.
• It helps you to realise what you really want. A cognitive therapist might question a client’s reasons for dying, listing the reasons for living and identifying alternative views to the problems. Often someone who is suicidal wants a situation to change, wants to feel differently, but they don’t really want death. Talking can help you to work out what you really want, and how you can achieve that.
Follow the advice offered by the Samaritans and speak out about your problems. And if you know of someone who is struggling, try to be available to them so that they don’t feel isolated.
Chris Warren-Dickins BACP Registered Counsellor
Counselling and coaching blog