The idea that someone is feeling suicidal and may want to end their life can be shocking and hard to understand. It can be difficult to come to terms with the fact that someone has reached the point where they are considering ending their life. Thankfully, information is at hand.
“In 2017, suicide was the 13th leading cause of death for Australians, up from 15th position in 2016.”
What causes people to think about suicide?
Suicide is a major public health problem in Australia. 3,128 people took their own lives in 2017, a 9% increase over the previous year. In 2017, suicide was the 13th leading cause of death for Australians, up from 15th position in 2016. Despite these shocking figures, the question of why someone would take their own life often remains poorly understood.
Some people who think about suicide are experiencing intense emotional pain and may see suicide as a way to end the distress. In many cases, the person is contending with different stressful life events or situations at once. Their thoughts and emotions connected to these experiences become so overwhelming that they feel unable to cope.
When negative events happen in someone’s life, they can act as triggers for suicidal thoughts or behaviour, especially if the person feels that there is no attainable resolution.
For many people considering suicide, those suicidal thoughts are short term, whereas they may be more persistent for people experiencing ongoing difficulty and / or negative life events.
Some examples of negative life events that may be linked to suicidal thoughts include:
- Emotional abuse, physical abuse or sexual abuse, whether past or present.
- A significant loss, such as the death of someone close.
- Relationship breakdown or problems, including conflict with parents and / or romantic partners or parental separation.
- Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar or PTSD.
- Exposure to suicidal behaviour in others (particularly exposure to another person taking their own life).
- Drug or alcohol abuse.
- Physical illness or disability.
- Failing subjects at school or problems and stress at work.
- Legal or court action.
- Financial crises like job loss, drought or bankruptcy.
It is important to understand that suicidal thoughts and feelings can be triggered by any number of life events. Understanding why people consider suicide therefore lies in understanding how a person feels about what is going on in their life and what it means to them.
How to help someone who is suicidal?
If you, or someone you know, is having thoughts of suicide, it’s important to take note of a few key actions.
1) Take notice of early suicidal signs
A person who is thinking about suicide will usually give some clues that indicate they are distressed. These are often referred to as suicide warning signs or suicidal signs.
Suicide prevention starts with recognising these suicide warning signs and taking them seriously. The list below explains what are often some of the first signs of suicidal tendencies that indicate a person might be thinking about suicide.
- Physical changes, such as loss of physical energy, lack of interest in personal hygiene or appearance, or major changes to sleeping and eating patterns.
- Behavioural changes, such as unexplained emotional outbursts, substance abuse, uncharacteristic risk-taking, withdrawal from family and friends or loss of interest in activities that were previously important to them.
- Conversational signs with themes of escape (“I can’t take this anymore”), hopelessness, guilt, feeling alone or damaged or even talking about suicide / death or making plans to end their life.
- Feelings of desperation, sadness, anger, shame, disconnection and hopelessness.
2) Ask direct questions about suicidal thoughts
It’s a common myth that asking someone if they are suicidal will put the idea in their head. There is no evidence that talking to someone about these thoughts is harmful. You can ask the person directly if they are feeling suicidal or if they have been thinking about suicide. By discussing it openly and honestly, you are giving the person the support and opportunity to take the first steps towards getting help.
3) How to begin a suicide discussion
Discussing suicide, and talking about suicidal thoughts may seem like a daunting prospect. Even so, one of the best things you can do is give the person space to discuss their suicidal feelings, without dismissing their thoughts or placing judgement. The mere act of showing someone that you care and are there to support them can make an enormous difference.
Here are some ideas to help you start the conversation:
- “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself lately, is everything ok with you?”
- “I’m worried about you. I’m wondering if we can talk about what’s troubling you?”
- “You’ve seemed really (down / sad / angry / unhappy) lately. I’m worried that you might be thinking of hurting yourself or suicide. Can we talk about this?”
It is important to simply describe what you have observed rather than use words that convey judgment such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
4) Seek further help
If the other person is feeling suicidal, the next step is to support them to get professional help.
Don’t try to deal with this situation alone. Encourage and support the person to get professional help. It is a good idea to involve the suicidal person in this process as much as possible, as it is important for them to take an active role in resolving their suicidal crisis.
In an emergency
If you are with someone who is in immediate danger, or concerned for their safety in any way:
- Call 000 and request an ambulance. Stay on the line, speak clearly, and be ready to answer the operator’s questions
- Visit your local hospital’s emergency department.
If you or someone you know is struggling and want to speak to a professional counsellor, SuicideLine Victoria is available 24/7. Call us on 1300 651 251.
If it is an emergency, call 000.