Monday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day. In recent years, cases of suicide have increased and it is now the biggest killer of young people in the UK today. It's a bleak picture, but there are things we can do to change it.
In August this year, BBC aired a documentary exploring male suicide, sharing stories from men who have experienced it and discussing ways of reducing the stigma that comes with mental ill-health. Men are still three times more likely to complete suicide than women, particularly between the ages of 40-49. Many people are calling it the silent killer as we are not good at talking about it and getting help when we need it.
Up until 1961, suicide was an illegal act, and for those who attempted (but did not complete) could have faced time in prison, fines or probation. For the families left behind, they could have faced poverty and discrimination. Although we have moved on since then, most of the stigma and lack of understanding is still with us.
So, why do people get suicidal thoughts?
We can all have suicidal thoughts that pop into our head and then back out again. In times of stress or as a result of trauma, they can become more frequent and/or have more sticking power. Stress and trauma can happen at any point and in any area of our lives. It could be as simple as having a long commute to work, to struggling to pay bills to facing long-term health problems. Over time, little things can cause a loop to form in our thoughts that feeds self-doubt, lowers our self-worth and makes us question whether people would be better off without us.
Faith can sometimes play into this, as it can be hard to feel close to God. Questions can rise about if He really cares about us, doubts about our purpose and meaning in life, which tie into that negative thought cycle. No matter how many times we're told He loves us, He knows us, He's always with us, being in a suicidal place can feel like have an impenetrable fog that wraps around both head and heart. As powerful as the Word of God is, just being quoted scripture is not always going to pierce that fog straight away.
In moments of darkness, it can be hard to find God, to see hope, to see the value they have in relationships around them and the value in themselves.
However, no one is ever beyond help.
So, what can we do?
Talk. One of the biggest myths about suicide is that talking about it can make it worse. In fact, the more we talk about, the more likely people will open up and seek help. The more we talk about it, we take away the shame and guilt people may feel for having suicidal thoughts. Talking can build relationships, highlight strengths and give hope.
Sometimes we can feel scared, that if we talk to somebody and they share something like having suicidal thoughts we'll have no idea what to do. It can feel like the pressure is on to say the right things, to give the right advice. "If I do or say something wrong and they attempt to take their life it is my fault." We can end up shying away from these conversations, or speaking too much to avoid the topic, neither of which is good for both sides.
Remember, you do not need to know everything to be in the moment with someone.
Ask them how they are doing and listen. Even if that's all you can do, it can make a huge difference to someone.
If you can, affirm what they are saying to you and reassure them that they are not on their own. Don't be afraid to move the conversation to a time where you can spend more time chatting, or to a better location. The end of a church service can be a busy time, and there may not always be the time at small group, so do not be afraid to arrange another time. Encourage them to seek professional help and get support. Recognise how much you can do and stick to that; you can't give if you're running on empty. Get support. Whether you are experiencing mental health difficulties or supporting someone, make sure you have other people around you. There is a conversation framework available here.
As a Church, we need to get better at not being OK around each other. Yes, God can break in and transform lives, but it can be a longer process for some. Like a marriage, we have to stand by each other through sickness and health, good times and bad times, making each other stronger through having those difficult conversations.
Let's be bold, and bring light to those who need it.