The ‘National Attitudes to Mental Illness’ survey, carried out annually since 2003, has shown a very encouraging shift in the attitudes of people in the UK towards those with mental illness. According to the mental health charity Mind, since the launch of the current Time to Change campaign in 2011, an estimated two million people (almost five per cent of the population) have improved in their perceptions of mental illness. More people than ever before are admitting to knowing someone with a mental health problem (more than 6o% of those surveyed in 2013) – and yet, almost half of respondents still say they would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their mental health difficulties.
The evidence of a general increase in tolerance is persuasive, and the worries individuals still have about trusting in that tolerance when it comes to their employer (a worry that I have to say I share), may over time start to lessen as more and more employers are putting time, money and often a great deal of passion, into promoting positive attitudes to mental health within their organisations. Employers are running raising awareness campaigns; they are training up staff members in mental health first aid; they are holding charity events to raise money; well-being and mindfulness events to reduce stress. It’s happening in the workplaces of my friends up and down the country, and my own workplace is no exception. There is definitely more talk about mental health in the corridors and in the tea room, than I have ever heard before.
It’s not just a welcome change – it’s an intriguing one. People are voicing what they actually think, what their own fears and reservations are around talking about mental health; and it demonstrates just why these campaigns are needed. When it comes to talking about suicide, there is a particular nervousness, and there are two completely contradictory views that I have often heard spoken – occasionally by the same people. It’s not necessarily that individuals are afraid that by talking about suicide they will almost ‘encourage‘ it or make it more likely to happen – most campaigns that I know of (for example, the excellent STOP Suicide campaign, which I have written about previously), tackle that particular myth head-on and make it clear that this is NOT the case. My feeling is (though I have no evidence to back this up) that this is also more of an ‘organisational concern’ (which includes a subconscious paranoia that suicidal thoughts might somehow be ‘catching’), than one which operates at an individual level. The two contradictory views that I am thinking of, can be summed up as “my words will have no impact and so I am not responsible/don’t need to do anything“; and “my words could have a huge impact, and if something happens I will be responsible“.
I have heard colleagues say that they would worry about talking to someone who was feeling suicidal, in case they ‘said the wrong thing’, or ‘made matters worse’. Though it is mostly unspoken, it is clear that there is an underlying fear here. “What if this person, who I am trying to help, does actually attempt or complete suicide? What if I said something which made them feel worse; or what if I didn’t think of saying ‘the right thing’ that would have helped? Am I responsible?”
NO. Assuming you are a genuine and caring person and that you have not been subjecting your colleague to harassment, bullying, or other words or behaviour which could potentially make you culpable in some way – you are not responsible for their subsequent actions and you are not responsible for saving them. If they have come to you in need and confided in you, you may well have a moral duty to try – but that is far as it goes. It would be entirely natural, I think, to feel guilty in such a situation -but that doesn’t mean that there would actually be something that you are guilty of. And I’m not going to lie to you and say that it will never happen. It is possible that, despite your best efforts, someone that you try and help, may complete suicide. They may even do it within a few hours or days of talking to you. But it is NOT your fault. Remember this – your conversation with them was part of a large and complex history of events and conversations, in all likelihood stretching way back in time, possibly before you ever met that person. The interaction of all those words and circumstances; the way in which they became linked with and interpreted in the light of the past, and through the lens of depression or another mental health condition – none of that is within your control. Will this situation happen to you if you start talking to people about their suicidal feelings? It is unlikely – and here’s why.
The vast majority of people are helped by talking about their suicidal feelings. And saying absolutely nothing, or walking away from someone who is clearly in distress, is likely to be much more upsetting than saying something which is ‘not quite the right thing’. And you really don’t have to say very much at all. Helping someone who is feeling suicidal is about letting them know that you’re there for them, that you see them and their distress, that you accept them and what they may want to tell you – and that you’re listening. Listening, and just being present. Your presence, and a small number of caring words, is all that is required. Everyone is different – you don’t know exactly how this person in front of you, got to this point in their lives. You couldn’t possibly know what the ‘exact right thing’ to say in this situation would be – they probably don’t know either. But it doesn’t matter. Emotional isolation is a killer – literally – and by interacting honestly and compassionately with someone who is feeling suicidal, you are doing the right thing in that situation. And yes, it’s okay – more than okay – to ask them if they have a suicide plan, and if they have the means to carry it out. Trust me, they are likely to see it as evidence that you care, and that you are not judging them, and that in itself, is a HUGE deal to someone who may feel invisible and worthless.
Which is why, your words are both less powerful than you fear, and more powerful than you hope. If you are concerned that the impact of saying ‘a negative thing’ would be so significant, why would you be unwilling to believe that the impact of saying ‘a positive thing’ could be significant? Acting on the belief that ‘whatever I say or do won’t make a difference because if someone really wants to complete suicide, they will’, is doubly flawed. Flawed because it significantly underestimates the power of a few caring words in such a situation, and flawed because fundamentally, you have no way of knowing whether any particular individual ‘really wants to complete suicide’. The individual themselves may be ambivalent about it – they may have an intense desire to die combined with an intense fear of death. They may be absolutely sure they want to leave this world – until hope, or at least doubt, enters in. And you can provide that. And it’s very, very simple for me to prove that to you.
Look at the story of Jonny Benjamin and his ‘Find Mike’ campaign, which tracked down the person who talked him down from the edge of a bridge in 2008. Look at the story, which has gone viral, of a young man who saved someone’s life by asking them if they were okay. Three words – but packed with meaning. I see you; I care about what happens to you; talk to me, I’m listening; I’m here. A hundred words in three – with COMPASSION tying them all together. Compassion – from the Latin word meaning ‘to suffer with‘. To be really present with someone in their suffering.
I have said that you may never know what brought someone to the point in their lives at which all they want is to die. I have said that that journey may have been long, complicated, and multi-faceted. But here’s the beauty of compassion, and of ‘suffering with‘. It’s about the here and now, not about what has gone before. It stands out because it is different from the rest of the landscape in which that person is currently standing. It’s not that what has gone before is not important – it’s that ‘suffering with‘ shows that what has gone before is not all that there is. It’s that it enables the person to answer the question ‘Are you okay?’ with ‘No, no I’m not okay. And I’m so glad that you see’.
As for ‘no, I’m not okay – but will I be’? Well, that is for another day, a day beyond the brink. Because that is another way in which ‘suffering with‘ is powerful- it leads to hope. And hope is about knowing that what has gone before is not all that there will ever be.
So if you have been tempted to think, as some of my colleagues do, that when speaking to someone who is feeling suicidal your words may either too powerful or too weak – I would say that in the moment, they can powerful enough. Speak them with boldness, but most of all with compassion. Be present, suffer with.
[If you would like more information on how to talk to someone who is feeling suicidal, please do look up the resources on websites such STOP Suicide, Grassroots Suicide Prevention, and the Samaritans.]