Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Just over a week ago, the Guardian reported that the male suicide rate in the UK was the highest it had been for two decades, with an overall increase in suicides across all genders.
Suicide is a uniquely complex tragedy, and the stigma, taboo and lack of understanding that surround the issue all contribute to an environment where those who need help most are often unable to get it. Suicidality is deeply personal, and yet there is a body of evidence that social factors and political intersections such as class, race, gender, sexuality and disability all contribute to a person’s suicidality.
Despite the silence, the taboos and the stigma, suicidality is clearly an issue for communities as much as it is an issue that affects individuals. We are interconnected beings, and our suicidality inhabits the spaces created in our relationships with those around us. Some studies have found that losing a loved one to suicide can increase a persons own risk of suicide by up to four times, meaning that suicidality can be spread through families and peer groups almost like a contagion. Let’s not see suicide as a private issue.
Mental health services can be ill-equipped to manage this. An individualised, medicalised and risk-focussed approach to suicide will struggle to engage with the social, intersectional and political factors that drive suicidality in our communities. Local mental health providers recently reported that only 28% of individuals who completed suicide had been under mental health services. So, a new response is clearly needed.
In 2019, Bristol Care Workers Network published Stopping Suicides: A Guide For Everyone. Stopping Suicides is a short pamphlet aimed at anyone who wants to build up their skills and confidence in helping support people through suicidality. The pamphlet covers how to spot people at risk of suicide, how to talk to them about it, and what to do to keep them safe. The idea behind Stopping Suicides is to empower ordinary people to help prevent suicides, to move away from a health service model for suicide prevention, and to build communities that can take a collective approach to suicide prevention instead. Stopping Suicides is available for free download on the resources section of this site https://bristolcareworkersnetwork.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/stopping-suicides-colour.pdf a printable, black and white version will be available soon.
It’s become a cliche for “suicide awareness” drives to urge suicidal people to “reach out” and “talk about suicide”, as if that’s all it takes to break the lethal taboo. Today, we are sure, we will see plenty of well-meaning individuals and organisations repeating this message, turning a well-meaning invitation to “reach out” into an impossible demand to place on the shoulders of those who are already struggling.
This message misses the point, in our view. For dozens of reasons, people experiencing suicidality often won’t be able to simply “reach out” and start talking. Placing the burden on the suicidal person to “reach out” shirks the responsibility of communities and services to offer any meaningful help. Who can you reach out to when your local talking therapies service has a year-long waiting list? Who can you talk to when your friends and family will panic and call the cops at the first mention of suicide?
Instead of urging people to talk, we’d like to remind everyone to listen when others talk, and to make sure you have the skills and knowledge to respond. If you are reading this, ask yourself what you would do if a friend or loved one told you right now that they were feeling suicidal. Would you panic? Would you tell them to call the cops or the crisis line? Or would you know how to help?
Breaking the taboo is everyone’s responsibility.