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On World Suicide Prevention Day, we spoke to Nick Barnes, the founder and Chief Executive of the National Centre for Suicide Prevention, Education and Training CIC and Simon Blake, Chief Executive of the social enterprise, Mental Health First Aid England. We asked them some questions about suicide and how best to protect those we love from harm, and they kindly offered us their thoughts.

Suicide thrives in secrecy. So, it is on all of us to start the conversation.

Simon Blake, Chief Executive

Q: Even talking about suicide and using that word is emotionally really tough, isn’t it?

It can be tough, every time we start a conversation about suicide. So few of us are familiar with how to talk about it, and the lack of investment in awareness and education makes it particularly tough. Suicide is still, unfortunately, steeped in stigma and is taboo.

The evidence proves that open, direct talk about suicide, when helping someone who may be considering suicide can help that person understand they have other options. If all of us learned from a very early age, that talking about mental health and suicide was important, many, many more people would be able to get help at an earlier stage and further pain, or suicide, as an ultimate consequence, can be prevented.  

Q: What are the signs someone might be at risk of suicide?

People thinking about suicide are still alive for a good reason – there is a living part within them – their survival instinct – that will communicate the pain the person is feeling to others. People with good training, such Mental Health First Aid or Suicide First Aid training, are much more likely to be able to spot the signals coming from someone with suicidal thoughts. For example a person may say things that are obvious signs, like “I don’t want to ever wake up again” or “I hate my life”, or they may make more coded expressions like “I just feel numb all the time” or “what’s the point?”.

People thinking about suicide may also do things which demonstrate they are trying to get help. Risk-taking or sudden changes in behaviour – doing things that are out of character – are signs that something might be wrong. This is often called the ‘absence of normality’ – if it is normal for a person to always be on time for work, and they have been repeatedly late, for example, we shouldn’t ignore this. It could be because something is very wrong in their life, it is certainly a sign of something that requires further investigation. We know there are almost always signs. When we know those signs, we can do something when we see them.

Q: If you suspect someone is at risk, what should you do and what shouldn’t you do?

Quite simply we must start the conversation. Evidence shows that open and direct conversation about suicide, is key to suicide prevention. Giving a person permission to talk about the very thing they are afraid to tell anyone about relieves the pressure inside that person. They may feel suddenly less alone and understand that suicidal thoughts are a very common process for lots of people, that you are understand about suicide and there is help available to keep safe. The one thing you should never do is avoid asking the question. Suicide thrives in secrecy. So, it is on all of us to start the conversation.

Q: Available statistics and our 25 years experience show that trans young people face considerable mental and emotional stress. We have, over the years, witnessed families and friendship groups suffering the loss of someone they loved. Are you concerned about the pressure trans young people are under in the media and online?

Yes, we are deeply worried about the impact of oppression, prejudice and transphobia on trans and non-binary young people. As set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children and young people – including those who are trans and non-binary – need and deserve safe and supportive environments to grow up in. We know this is far from the experience of too many trans children and young people. It is on all of us to work hard to create a positive culture where trans children and young people can thrive and get the help and support they need at home, school, in healthcare and the community.

Q: What advice would you give to those who might be unaware of the impact they’re having on people’s mental health?

Whoever we are, a parent or carer, a friend or a relative, a sibling or activist, or a commentator, our words and actions have consequences. Too often, it seems, some folk do not think carefully enough about the impact they may have on others.

All of us need to be mindful of our own language and actions. We must understand the collective impact of prejudice – however that manifests itself – and a damaging cultural context on young trans and non-binary lives. Our advice is straightforward: as adults we have a collective responsibility for creating safe environments for ALL children and young people, and we need to think carefully about what they are hearing and experiencing.

Shame on us if we do not take that responsibility into account when it comes to trans and non-binary young people. And if all else fails, perhaps we should all fall back on the simplest advice most of us learned as children: if you cannot say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.  

Q: We think it’s important to talk about these issues, but what advice is there on speaking safely around self-harm and suicidal ideation? 

If you really want to increase your confidence in relation to talking about self-harm and suicide we would really recommend some training (www.mhfaengland.org and https://www.ncspt.org.uk ). Until we feel confident talking about mental wellbeing, self-harm and suicide, we will always be left feeling like we ‘could do better’ or, in the worst-case scenario, ‘if only I’d known then’.

Q: Our advice would always be, to reduce the chance of ever having to deal with the worst case scenarios, learn how to facilitate good conversations and access to support now. Don’t wait until things feel completely out of control. Learn how to feel more in control of situations and how to lead and support people in overwhelming emotional and / or physical pain, to places where they can better cope. Learning how to cope with the pains and problems that many of us have to face in our lives helps creates safety. And we know that safety saves lives.