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Breaking the Taboo - Talking About Suicide

You may have already had a listen to our latest podcast with Brian Glass (if not, check it out here), who talks to us about his work as a mental health trainer in East Lothian. Among other courses, he teaches Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), where people learn how to recognise someone who might be feeling suicidal and how to safely and sensitively intervene. Brian’s experience is not only professional, but personal – he talks about how he tried to end his own life, about how it gradually crept up on him and eroded all sense of positivity and hope. It was this experience that led him into the mental health space, to try to help others deal with what he dealt with.


Suicide is not a subject that everyone is comfortable thinking about, let alone openly talking about, and it’s not surprising. For a long time, it was a crime and considered a moral sin to die by suicide, which has created a cultural taboo around the subject that few are comfortable to confront. This has resulted in suicide becoming shrouded in myth and fear, and the common reaction to something you fear is to avoid it.


If you listen to Brian, you will hear him say how the key to preventing suicide is to be open and honest about it. The earlier the intervention, the better – but this can’t happen if we don’t talk about it. We can’t pretend suicide doesn’t exist, and to do so only makes the problem worse.


It’s often thought that, if you suspect someone might be feeling suicidal, you shouldn’t ask them about it. We worry that mentioning it might make them more likely to do it, or if we were wrong and they weren’t thinking about it, maybe we’ve just put the idea in their head? Or we simply don’t know the best thing to say so steer clear of the subject entirely. These worries are the result of our own misconceptions - in reality, evidence shows that asking someone if they’re suicidal gives them permission to talk about it, and provides them with the opportunity to ask for help that they may have otherwise assumed wasn’t there. You don’t have to solve their problems for them – listening, understanding and showing you are there for them will help, and could save their life.


It's also common for people who have expressed a wish to end their life to not be taken seriously - it’s assumed that they don’t mean it and won’t go through with it, that they’re just attention-seeking. They may well be seeking attention, but not in the ‘look at me’ way we tend to use that phrase. Often, those considering suicide do not actually want to die, they just want whatever situation they are in to stop, and that is a small but vital distinction. By saying out loud that they don’t feel life is worth living or that they want to die, they may really be calling out for help, hoping for other options to be shown to them.


There are signs to be alert for if you are worried that someone is feeling suicidal. Many of these will also apply to other mental health challenges or other periods of struggle, and do not necessarily mean that someone is thinking of suicide. However, we’ve learnt that the best thing to do is ask, so it’s unlikely to cause harm if you ask a person if they are feeling suicidal when they’re not.


  • Finding it difficult to cope with things

  • Feeling agitated, restless, angry or upset

  • Lacking energy or hope

  • Cutting themselves off from family and friends, or being distant and unresponsive

  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope with emotions

  • Talking about feeling helpless or worthless

  • Talking about being trapped by circumstances, or unable to escape their thoughts

  • Changes in routine or engaging is risk-taking behaviour (like gambling or violence)


Suicide is a difficult subject to talk about, but if you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, don’t shy away from it. Being a listening ear may be the most important thing you can do. Reach out to others, talk about it and acknowledge it – by doing so, you will see that help is there, and there are other options available to you.


If you feel the need, these organisations can help:


NHS 111

Papyrus: 0800 068 41 41 |

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Shout: 85258 (text)

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