Near where I live, there is a long bridge. One Sunday morning I was walking over it and noticed a young man taking off his socks and placing them in his trainers. A woman approached him and as I got closer she told me the young man wanted to kill himself. I placed my hand on his shoulder and offered a few comforting words before he quickly climbed up on the nearby railings, intending to jump the 60 feet or so down into the water. Without hesitation, I wrapped my hands and arms around his waist and with almighty strength held on to him with force despite his attempts to break free. I shouted, ‘help! help!’ repeatedly until some more people came to the rescue. We managed to get him down from the railings but I continued to keep a hold of him. A passer-by who had stopped to help started talking to the distressed young man. He told us he was nineteen years old and he’d had a big argument with his parents that morning. I never found out what happened to him after the police arrived, but I hope he was taken to hospital and received some help. This incident brought home to me the desperation felt by those who wish to end their lives.
Nearly 800,000 people die by suicide each year around the world. That is roughly 1 death every 40 seconds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the world for people aged 15–24 years. Almost 7,000 people across the UK and Ireland die by suicide each year. This equates to a daily average of 19 people. Three-quarters of suicides are by men. According to the Samaritans, the highest rate of suicide is in men aged 45–49 and it is the biggest killer in men under 35. Men are significantly more likely to commit suicide than women because they struggle to admit they need help. For many men, mental health issues remain a taboo subject, despite efforts to bring problems such as anxiety and depression out into the open. Men feel stigmatised by their mental health problems and are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their dignity. They are often told, or made to feel, they must ‘man up’ and stop feeling sorry for themselves.
Signs that someone might be considering suicide can include talking about wanting to die, kill oneself or being a burden to others. There might be an increased use of alcohol or drugs, behaviour may be more reckless, and the person may be acting anxious or agitated. This might include sleeping too little or too much, withdrawing from family and friends or feeling isolated. However, sometimes there are no signs.
If someone with a depression diagnosis takes their own life, it is much easier to understand than those without. But the key point to remember is, irrespective of whether they have a diagnosis or not, anyone who takes their own life has, at that moment in time, an impaired thought process – they are not thinking logically. Many such people have good jobs, nice houses, new cars and are in committed relationships. They enjoy lovely holidays and a comfortable lifestyle, and still take their own lives. They may have hidden their depression for some time and, during a moment of feeling totally overwhelmed by their anguish, decide to kill themselves. Some consider that suicide is inherited because it is common for several members of a family to die this way. Time and time again, the pattern is repeated, and many wonder why this fate lies in some families.
All suicide deaths leave unanswered questions. The reality is that many of these people have experienced trauma nobody else is aware of, or their depression might be linked to an incident that has been overlooked. Those who die by suicide are deeply depressed. They are in a state of desperation and deeply hurt by the life they live. Life in their head has become so dark and unhappy.
Some helpful strategies when talking to suicidal people who are considering death include: exploring reasons to be hopeful and helping them to seek services, including helplines, to get professional support. Don’t be afraid to ask suicidal people what they think might help and what would need to happen to make them feel safer. (For some, that might mean helping them to go to hospital.) Consider restricting access to lethal means – such as painkillers or weapons. Encourage anti-isolation – people are less likely to attempt suicide if they are with people such as family members. Ask them if going away for a while, to stay with a family member or friend, will help. This may allow the situation to ease and for the person to reflect and clear their head enough to think logically. People are not always looking to kill themselves – they just want to make their feelings stop. Suicide is not so much a choice about stopping life; rather a choice to stop how they feel.
Although more people speak openly about suicide these days than in previous generations, it still remains taboo. While young people are developing better emotional literacy skills, men, generally, still continue to conceal their feelings more than women. Investment in resources such as counselling and other talking therapies is still too low to accommodate the high number of people seeking help. Anti-depressant prescriptions have doubled in the last ten years, despite research showing a link between them and suicidal ideation. The mental health system is in a state of disarray, with patients often left feeling brushed aside and insufficiently treated. The fallout of Covid-19 and the impact that lockdowns and restrictions have had on people’s mental wellbeing is still to be calculated. The simple fact is, until suicide is recognised as a public health priority and given the same recognition and resources as other public health problems, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, the numbers will sadly continue to rise.
This article contains extracts from Declan Henry’s booklet on suicide which can be viewed and downloaded on his website: www.declanhenry.co.uk (Available from 10th September 2021 to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day).