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The Importance of Language and the Suicide Safety Guide

Suicide Prevention Day

Did you know 1 in 5 of us will have suicidal thoughts in our lifetime? Not only that but it’s also estimated that 134 people are impacted for every suicide. As a result, approximately 15–20 are ‘injured’ and of those, 60% are more likely to start thinking about suicide themselves.

Today is Suicide Prevention Day and I can’t imagine suicide won’t have touched you in one way or another. In 2019 there were 5691 completed suicides in England and Wales alone compared to a lesser 1752 road traffic accident deaths in the whole of England, Scotland, and Wales. As you may know from my previous blog, I am hugely passionate about encouraging everyone to be accountable, to upskill, and get educated about mental health. One case study I saw that really puts this into perspective was from Lend Lease about their roll-out of Mental Health First Aiders.

They realised that construction workers (ie. their employees) are six times more likely to die by suicide than a workplace incident. Yet consider the budget and resource that goes into physical health & safety, rather than mental health support in the industry! This is eye-opening to say the least and can be applied in so many other circumstances.

As I also mentioned in my previous blog, in 2017 we lost our friend Dan to suicide and as a result, I decided to complete a two-day Suicide First Aid course. I also recently became aware of the #BeThe1To campaign. Whilst this is more a US based campaign, their objective is to spread the word about actions we can all take to try to prevent suicide. So today, for Suicide Prevention day, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of my tangible takeaways from the Suicide First Aid course that I think everyone has a duty to be aware of.

The Importance of Language

My first eyeopener was the misuse of language around suicide, specifically ‘committed suicide.’ This was completely new to me, but I quickly learned this terminology dates back to when suicide was a crime. Should we really use the same language for commit suicide vs commit murder? To help provide some clarity, here is a quick list with some suggestions for better language use.

  • Instead ofCommitted Suicide consider Died by or completed suicide or ended their life

  • Instead ofSuccessful attempt/Topped themselves consider Suicide death/fatal suicide attempt

  • Instead ofUnsuccessful/failed attempt considerSuicide attempt/non-fatal attempt of suicide

  • Instead of… Cry for help/Attention seeking considerDescribing the behaviour but using language that conveys hope over someone’s ability to restore their mental health

  • Instead ofSuffering from/is a victim of consider Lives with / has / experiences / has been diagnosed with

  • Instead ofSuicide is selfish understand that… many people in this position often believe they are a burden to their loved ones, and it would be better for said loved ones if they were not around

Upon reflection, I do wonder why society ever started using unsuccessful/ successful to describe suicide…

One thing I also must get off my chest around the topic of language is using suicide within a frivolous joke about how mundane a task is for example. The litmus test here is to substitute suicide for cancer. We know it wouldn’t be morally correct to say “That meeting was so boring I just wanted to die of cancer”, so why would it be acceptable to say “That meeting was so boring I just wanted to kill myself”? Having lost Dan to suicide, my heart sinks when I hear references like this.

Suicide Safety Guide

Having addressed the importance of language, I thought it would be useful to cover the 3-step suicide safety guide. I’ll go into more detail about each topic which may seem complex but just remember:

1. Ask

2. Listen

3. Safeguard

As I mentioned, everyone should try to become more aware of how you could help in case you were to ever find yourself in a suicide first aid scenario because, as a friend, colleague, or family member, you are likely to be the first person an individual confides in before getting support from a mental health professional. These three steps are there to act as a guide so that you can try to navigate this challenging situation as best as possible.

Step 1 — Ask

You really can’t underestimate the significance of step 1, ‘ask’. During the course we roleplayed asking the trainer ‘have you had thoughts of suicide?’ This really is harder than it sounds so I would encourage you to try saying it out loud. In a real-life scenario, it’s important to confidently complete step 1 as opposed to moving straight to step 2. This is because nervousness and avoidance of the subject indicates to the individual there is a need for them to hide their feelings, leaving them unlikely to disclose the truth whilst continuing to suffer in silence.

So, ensuring you are asking directly, you could say ‘sometimes when people are upset or struggling, they are thinking of suicide. Are you thinking of suicide?’. Don’t beat around the subject — just ask the question. It’s scary but it’s so important.

Step 2 — Listening

Step 2 is around listening, and it also can’t be underestimated how valuable this is. If you’re a doer like me, this is particularly difficult but remember 1) you don’t have to fix their problems and 2) listen to understand, not to reply. Don’t be dismissive, show empathy (amazing video here on this). You can summarise back to the person what they have told you to show they have been heard. After talking it through consider thinking about the concept: DEATH, PAUSE, LIFE.

Do they need to choose between life and death today? What helps them with big decisions? Is now a good time to make a major decision? Ask questions and let them explain their situation.

Some of the above questions may help to ‘derail’ their suicide plan. If this is the case, you may be able to start to segue into step 3 — safeguarding.

Step 3 — Safeguard

For this, consider what needs to be done right now to keep them safe. Who can you call? Where do they need to go? Next, create a safety plan together which you can use now, and they can keep it for the future too. I know this sounds complicated but work together to create this. Consider:

· What helped before?

· Who may they be able to contact if they are feeling alone or desperate?

· How much is ‘safe’ for them in the context of alcohol or drugs?

· What have they learnt about their own mental health?

· Are there any activities that help them take their mind off things?

· List out relevant help lines and their GPs details. The main one I would recommend memorising is the Samaritans as they are available 24hrs a day — call 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258

Get them to read this plan back to you and offer to help by making the first call(s) with them whether this be to a helpline, GP, and/or loved one. This is another tangible step towards further ‘derailing’ their suicide plan. Importantly, they may be able to recognise suicidal thoughts in the future and have a mental link to the safety action plan in their toolkit — if they can do one thing from the list this could make a huge difference next time.

Finally, if you do ever use these skills in a real situation, it’s so important to talk to someone close to you and get the support you need. This would be a hugely upsetting situation to find yourself in and you need to consider your own mental health and self-care.

If you’ve got this far reading my blog, to be honest, I just want to say thank you. As I said at the start, I’m hugely passionate about education around mental health so even if you, the reader, have picked up one thing I’ll be over the moon. I really hope you don’t have to use Suicide First Aid in a real-life situation, but I guess a lot of this can be applied to general support for our loved ones too.

I’m conscious it may all sound so simple and I understand it’s far from that, however conversations can be extremely powerful, and I truly believe the more conversations we have the better. Let’s fight the stigma together!

Header image source:Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


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