Talking about suicide can help save a life

New leaflet emphasises that "it's safe to talk about suicide" on World Suicide Prevention Day

For many, suicide is an extremely emotive and sensitive subject that can be difficult to broach. Recent stories in the media have brought the issue into sharp focus, but for both organisations and individuals, there is still a general reluctance to discuss the issue, and a perception that talking about it will put suicidal thoughts into a person's head.

A new leaflet being launch today (Wednesday 10 September) to mark World Suicide Prevention Day, is the result of research carried out by the University of Exeter Medical School.

The aim of the research was to understand the difficulties that members of the public face in recognising that someone close to them is suicidal and deciding what action, if any, they should take. 

By talking to relatives and close friends of people who had died by suicide, researchers found that there had been few clear warning signs.  Signs and signals given by the suicidal person were highly ambiguous, contradictory and open to a variety of interpretations.  And even when friends and relatives recognised that something was wrong, they were often paralysed by fear, which rendered them unable to say or do anything to prevent the tragedy. 

The researchers concluded from this that there is a pressing need for public education resources that address emotional as well as intellectual needs. 

The leaflet provides some simple information about warning signs but, more importantly, aims to give people the confidence to trust their gut instincts and act on their concerns. 

The message, ‘It’s Safe to Talk about Suicide’, challenges the popular myth that mentioning suicide (using the ‘S’ word) may put the idea into someone’s head.  Research shows that this does not happen, and that talking openly with someone who is very low and asking them directly whether they are having thoughts of suicide is the best way to keep them safe and ensure they get the help they need.

Dr Christabel Owens, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Finding the courage to ask a friend or loved one whether they are feeling suicidal is very difficult.  People are afraid that if they say anything at all they risk making the situation worse, so they avoid it. We need to persuade people that saying the word won’t make it happen, and that doing something is better than doing nothing, and could potentially save a life.  This leaflet is designed to help people do this.

"It is intended for any member of the public who is concerned that someone close to them may have reached rock bottom.  It is based on the experiences of people who have been bereaved by suicide, and has been developed in close collaboration with the leading suicide prevention charities."

The leaflet has been funded by Devon County Council's Public Health Directorate, and is endorsed by The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities.  

Dr Virginia Pearson, Devon's Director of Public Health, said:  "We're really pleased to be supporting this important resource which is the result of some excellent work on suicide prevention undertaken by the University of Exeter.  Their work supports the findings of the Safeguarding Children's Board child death review, prompting a need to find a way to make it easier for people to talk about suicide and leading us to this partnership.

"Suicide rates are rising nationally, and they present a challenge for public health teams around the country in tackling the causes and understanding the issues.  Awareness and education are instrumental in making this happen, and the leaflet will, I hope, help create a better understanding of the subject of suicide, and help people start a conversation about it when it could really matter."

The leaflet will be available for people to pick up in Citizens Advice Bureaux, Job Centres, Local Authority Housing Offices, GP practices, churches, universities and colleges, and through a range of other statutory and voluntary agencies. 

Date: 10 September 2014