Why it’s so hard to open up about having suicidal thoughts. Metro.
Why it’s so hard to open up about having suicidal thoughts
By Harriet Williamson
This article contains frank discussions of suicide and suicidal thoughts. ‘Don’t be so selfish.’ ‘That’s pathetic.’ ‘It’s just attention seeking to say things like that.’ ‘Don’t you care about anyone’s feelings but your own?’ These are the responses I’ve come to expect when I’ve spoken – hesitantly, or in a terrible, burning rush – to others about struggling with wanting to die.
Sometimes the urge to end my life is strong enough that I make plans. Other times I use self-harm as a compromise, telling my brain: ‘You can have this much pain, but I won’t go all the way.’ Mostly it’s just a dull, painful ache in my head and chest. A tiny hammering of the same thoughts over and over again: ‘You don’t deserve to live, you should be dead, why haven’t you done it yet?’ It would help to talk about these thoughts with a friend, but I’m so scared of a negative response that the only time I give voice to how I’m feeling is if I get to crisis point and have to ring a helpline like the Samaritans.
This is not an uncommon state of affairs. The NHS says that there’s no right or wrong way to talk about suicidal feelings, but it’s incredibly difficult to start the conversation. Suicide is currently the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. People, particularly men, are ending their lives because they are unhappy, under pressure, suffering with mental heath problems and feeling unable to talk about it.
The influence of toxic masculinity, where men feel that experiencing emotional pain is shameful because of their gender, is partly to blame. Another major obstacle to people (of any gender) having open and frank discussions about suicide is that harmful myths still persevere about what it means to have suicidal thoughts, who can experience them and what can be done to help.
If misconceptions around suicide go unchallenged, people will continue to respond to those who open up about suicidal thoughts in dangerously unhelpful ways. Alex was 15 when she let her mum know that she was having suicidal thoughts. ‘I tried to tell my mum about being suicidal and she told me I was being stupid and it was typical teenage, attention-seeking behaviour. ‘After I told my mum I tried telling my brother, maybe a week later, and he threw a razor blade at me and told me to get it over with and hurry up so I haven’t spoken to anyone about it since.
‘Since then I have never been able to open up about it for fear of someone having the same reaction. ‘It’s three years on, and I still suffer badly with suicidal thoughts.’ Equating suicidal thoughts with being ‘attention-seeking’ is incredibly damaging. It tells the person experiencing these distressing thoughts and urges that what they’re going through isn’t serious and doesn’t deserve to be considered as such. By trivialising the issue, we make it more likely that people will go to extremes in an attempt to get others to see them as deserving of help, or they will simply shut down and close themselves off.
All of us need attention. Giving someone who’s suffering the attention they need could well save their life. Some people are so frightened of being judged for their suicidal thoughts that they’ve never told anyone, even though these feelings are a constant part of their lives. Austin is one of these people. He told Metro.co.uk: ‘I constantly struggle with suicidal thoughts. Those feelings can cause anxiety, panic attacks, and really shut you down for a while. ‘I get it by roads and on bridges but public transport is probably when it gets really bad. Being on the edge of a busy tube platform, packed to the line with people. ‘You’re at the front. One foot ahead of the other. Is it a brace in case someone nudges you? Is it you preparing to leap? ‘I’ve never opened up about it. Not with partners, not with my family, not with counsellors.
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It’s vitally important that we take people seriously when they talk about wanting to die. Remember, this might be the first time they’ve spoken about it, but it doesn’t mean that those debilitating thoughts and feelings haven’t been plaguing them for weeks, months or even years. It takes courage to open up about feeling suicidal and to do so is a step in the right direction, but a cruel or ignorant response can create more distress and shame, and indicate to the person in question that their feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness are justified.
Lucy* says that she has suicidal thoughts every other day. ‘I suffer with borderline personality disorder, severe anxiety and depression, and if you have never felt that low or that desperate then I’m afraid it’s hard to understand. ‘When you’re in that position, you just need the mental pain to stop, you don’t think of anything else. ‘People can say; “Think of….” your loved one, your children, your parents, but when you’re in that mindset (and it can happen so quickly for a person with BPD) then you think of nothing. ‘You’re in that black hole, you cannot see any light, you cannot see a way forward, it’s so black that you only think of one thing – suicide. ‘If we could snap out of it, then don’t you think we would?’ Lucy doesn’t feel able to talk to anyone about how she feels.
Although people who kill themselves are more likely to have been suffering from mental health problems, not everyone who dies by suicide is mentally ill at the time of death. You don’t need to have a mental illness to experience suicidal thoughts. They transcend age, gender, ethnicity and class. Having someone to talk to without judgement can make all the difference.
Oliver* is in his late 50s and thinking about ending his life is not new to him. ‘I’ve been plagued by suicidal thoughts for many years. They usually take the same form. ‘When I wake early, around 5am, I will think of hanging myself and when I’m waiting at the station I’ll think “What if?” when an express train comes through at high speed. ‘Occasionally, at the station I will hold on to a platform seat or any physical structure so I know that I cannot step in front of the train. ‘I don’t tell people about these thoughts – why would I? Everyone would think I was mad. ‘However, there was a time when I was at dinner with two friends and one said how distressed he’d been by his mother’s death and said: “Do you ever think of suicide?” Without thinking I said: “Every day”. Our companion looked completely shocked. ‘It appeared to be a judgement on me and I didn’t want that. I felt I should explain it to her, but then I just pulled back. ‘The truth is that I don’t think I am likely to act on these thoughts – I do not seek the oblivion of death, I just feel overwhelmed sometimes by all of my life.
‘I also think that suicidal thoughts are much more widespread than people imagine – if you don’t have them, you are one of the lucky ones.’ Having someone you can talk to about suicidal thoughts can make all the difference. Tara was in hospital after a very serious suicide attempt. She says that her parents were extremely upset that she hadn’t opened up to them about how she was feeling. ‘They wished I had spoken about it but it’s something that feels so uncomfortable to discuss, especially as it comes with lots of “whys”. My parents asked me why I wanted to kill myself, but I didn’t know how to answer.’
If you make a suicide attempt, you are more likely to end your own life than someone who has not previously attempted. Statistically, Tara was in a vulnerable position after her attempt, but the support of her friends is keeping her afloat. ‘True friends will speak to you on the topic without judgement. They will check up on you, see if you’ve been self harming and call you before bed.’ ‘It’s little things that make the difference. I couldn’t do life without that support.’
The Samaritans offer support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.