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5 ways to help someone who’s having suicidal thoughts

Professor Rory O’Connor has been researching suicide and self-harm for over 20 years. He’s a firm believer that all of us can play a part in preventing suicide - here's how you can help...

  1. Understand that suicide is not selfish, or a ‘choice’

Nine times out of ten, it's not that a person wants to end their life, rather they want the pain to end. People experiencing suicidal thoughts usually feel trapped and overwhelmed by unbearable pain, which can create a huge amount of guilt and make them feel they’re a burden on those around them. They also experience tunnel vision, which means they often can’t see a way to get out of the cycle, or any alternatives but to end their pain by ending their own lives.

  1. Social perfectionism can prevent a person from admitting they feel suicidal

People who are social perfectionists tend to identify closely with the roles and responsibilities they believe they have in life – for example, being a dedicated colleague, a caring friend or a responsible parent. It’s not about what they expect of themselves - it’s what they think other people expect of them. Because of this, people who are social perfectionists might feel they’ve let others down if they’ve ‘failed’ to be a good sibling, friend, or colleague. They are also more sensitive to negative social situations and life events. Researchers have found strong links between people who experience social perfectionism and feeling suicidal.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if you’re worried about them

If you're worried about someone, always ask them. Research has shown that asking somebody whether they’re suicidal does not plant the idea in their head – but it could be the first step to making sure that person gets help and support, potentially saving their life. It’s frightening to ask this question for fear they might answer ‘yes’, or because you’re worried you’ll say the wrong thing. As long as you’re compassionate and non-judgmental, you’re doing it right. Have a look at the Samaritans website for resources to help you have this conversation in a more structured way. 

  1. Remind them that there is hope

People who are suicidal often experience tunnel vision – they can’t see a way beyond their feelings and don’t believe things will ever change. This tunnel vision makes it more likely that they’ll feel trapped. Help them by giving them a glimmer of hope and reminding them of positive things in their lives in moments of crisis or talk about something entirely different to distract them.

  1. Always get professional help if you’re worried

We can all provide a safe place for someone to talk and unload onto. However, if you’re at all worried, urge the person to contact their GP. If the situation’s urgent and you feel that the person is imminently at risk, always call 999.

If you’d like to hear Rory talk in more detail about his work to prevent suicide, check out our podcast with him. And if you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please visit our Urgent Help and Advice page.

Last updated: 13 September 2019

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