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Suicide First Aid: caring for the carer, understanding the issues and looking after your needs

“ ‘Begin at the beginning’, said the King, gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.[1]’ ”

We move, in the final article in our series about Suicide First Aid, away from William Shakespeare and towards another esteemed British writer, Lewis Carroll and his world-famous work, Alice in Wonderland. In the quote above, the King of Hearts lays out a simple, yet often overlooked approach to talking about a complex issue. In other words, don’t overthink things too much. Take things in stages, work through each one in turn and when you have come to the end of what you need to say or do, stop.

Helping someone talk through feelings around suicide can seem a very daunting prospect. It can feel like a huge level of responsibility to support someone at such a dark time in their life. What if you don’t know what to say to them? What if you say the wrong thing and make it worse? Both very real and often articulated fears that can prevent us from stepping forward, even if we want to very much.

Help is at hand

Happily, there is help and support available. Suicide is a difficult subject and needs careful handling. That is why the National Centre for Suicide Prevention, Education and Training (NCSPET) has created and licensed its own Suicide First Aid course to help people faced with the prospect of talking to someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, troubling emotions and mental health challenges. The course covers a range of topics, from understanding suicide risks and trigger factors through to learning what to say, what not to say and when to seek emergency medical or specialist support[2].

It is key to understand both how and when to approach someone you suspect may be struggling with thoughts about ending their own life. Some of the key warning signs include:

  • Someone talking about how they are a burden to others, feel trapped or have lost hope about the future
  • Someone dealing with loss, rejection and other stressful life events who is finding it hard to cope
  • Someone who has started giving away possessions or money unexpectedly, or who is suddenly talking about funeral arrangements or updating their Will
  • Someone experiencing an unexplained change in mood. This can be both uncharacteristically negative and suddenly positive – as if they have worked out a permanent solution to their worries
  • Someone whose behaviour has markedly changed around eating and drinking, taking drugs, sleeping and risk-taking[3]

If you spot one or more of these signs in a colleague, friend or family member, it could well be time to consider how you might be able to help them. This could be by alerting someone else to the issue, offering to research support avenues or seek professional help or simply offering you own listening ear and non-judgemental presence. Be compassionate and empathetic, repeating their words back to them where possible to show that you have heard and understood them.

Ask them about their feelings and how they may have changed. Encourage them to think about positive things they have ahead of them and things that make them feel more hopeful. If you feel they are in immediate danger, seek emergency help and stay with them. Make sure you follow up on any longer-term commitments you make to them, such as meeting up for a coffee or going with them to a counselling appointment.

Understanding your own emotions

Knowing when and how to offer support to someone affected by thoughts about suicide is one thing; making sure you are keeping yourself safe is another. These are very tricky subjects to discuss and the emotional fallout can be huge if you are unprepared or unable to process your own feelings. This can be particularly hard if such conversations bring back troubling memories of your own, or feelings that you have tried to ignore within yourself.

For example, the recent pandemic has been hard on everyone, bringing new or buried feelings to the surface and challenging the most robust of people’s mental health and coping mechanisms. Losing loved ones to the virus, feeling lonely or isolated, concerns around keeping children safe and increasing health anxieties have affected a huge number of us. It is time to be gentle and understanding as we help each other heal.

It is also vital that you understand that it is OK for you to be affected by someone else’s low emotions and feelings around suicide. You don’t always have to be the strong one. It is especially OK to seek expert support yourself to help you process what you are talking to someone else about, and how it is making you feel. This will not only helps you, but it will also help the person you are supporting. Talking to someone about suicide will not make it more likely that they will follow through with the act of taking their own life[4]. Often, just having someone in their corner, listening to them without judging them or making them feel like a waste of time can be enough to help people begin to move past their troubling thoughts.

Looking after yourself

We all experience difficult times with mental health and our outlook on life. Key to managing all of this is identifying some coping strategies that can help us get through life’s less favourable moments. Although this is a good way to help people experiencing thoughts about suicide, drawing up your own list of coping methods can also help you remain more positive and stronger in yourself while you support others through their painful feelings[5]. Everyone will have different ideas about strategies that work best for them, but a few suggestions could be:

  • Listening to music
  • Drawing, photography or another creative hobby
  • Taking a relaxing bath or having a pampering session
  • Playing video games, watching a film or turning on the TV
  • Walking the dog and getting outside into nature
  • Doing yoga, meditation or mindfulness
  • Contacting a friend for a coffee or a chat
  • Going to the gym or enjoying another form of exercise or sport 

If you feel that you would like to learn more about supporting people who are thinking about suicide, why not sign up for our Suicide First Aid course? Having the tools to help you deal with this difficult situation will give you confidence to step forward to offer your support. Always seek professional help if you feel out of your depth or like the person is in imminent danger of attempting to take their own life.

For more information about the Suicide First Aid course and to sign up for your place, please get in touch today. Knowing how to respond to someone who has expressed thoughts about suicide, self-harm or depression, while taking care of yourself and your own emotions and needs can make a huge difference to everyone involved.


[1] Source: https://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/chapters-script/alice-in-wonderland-quotes/. Accessed 23 November 2021

[2] Source: https://www.ncspt.org.uk/. Accessed 22 September 2021

[3] Source: When it is Darkest, by Rory O’Connor,2021, p234

[4] Source: https://www.psychreg.org/how-talk-someone-suicidal-thoughts/. Accessed 23 November 2021

[5] Source: When it is Darkest, by Rory O’Connor,2021, p204

Post Author: Gayle Young