They’re more common than eating disorders. They’re more common than reported cases of self-harm. They’re more common than underage pregnancy. They’re more common than most mental health problems. And you’re probably not talking about them. Suicidal thoughts are not an easy thing to talk about and yet 32 per cent of young people in Britain have experienced them. Let that sink in for a second: almost a third of young people in Britain have thought about trying to take their own life. ChildLine report an increase of 116 per cent in young people wanting to talk to them about suicidal thoughts. What a heartbreaking statistic. It’s time we broke the silence which surrounds suicide; because when we break the silence, we can begin to break the stigma.
One of the greatest fears we often have about talking about suicide is that it may somehow ‘give young people the idea’. We think that we are protecting our young people by shielding them from the hopelessness and horror of suicide, but how can we begin to shed light and hope into darkened minds if we don’t speak up? As we’ve learnt from other mental health conditions, and other previously-held taboos such as porn, the question isn’t whether to speak about it, the question is how.
Speaking of Suicide
The first and arguably the most important things when talking about suicide and suicidal thoughts is to use the right language. Many of the words and phrases surrounding suicide are rooted in the legal system - up until 1961, suicide was illegal in the UK. Phrases such as ‘unsuccessful suicide’ and ‘committed suicide’ hang around and perpetuate the idea that suicide is something shameful and punishable.
We will not speak at any length here about the ethics of suicide; but I do like the interpretation Donal O’Mathuna gives when he writes about King Saul’s suicide. He says: ‘Rather than viewing Saul’s suicide as an isolated incident with no moral comment, this scene is the tragic conclusion to a literary masterpiece soaked in moral comment. Tragedy implies that what “is” is not what “ought” to be.’
Suicide is always a tragedy. It is always far from what is ‘meant to be’, and using phrases such as ‘completed suicide’, ‘died by suicide’ and ‘survived suicide attempt’ are more compassionate and less stigmatising than ‘committed’ or ‘unsuccessful’. They also make young people more likely to talk about what they’re feeling if they don’t feel judged. Talking about suicidal thoughts is not something that comes naturally to anyone, neither youth workers or young people, but it has to be done. The Bible is not silent on difficult emotions or suicide - so nor should we be.
Something to Hang on for
I can clearly remember having thoughts such as, ‘I think I want to die’ as a very young child. When I had an argument with a friend, or felt lonely or left out, it became my default position. I didn’t tell anyone about those fleeting thoughts because I had a sense that it was bad to have these thoughts. I wasn’t suicidal, but I had the thoughts. More often than not my next thought was something along the lines of, ‘I’ll leave it until next week because I really want to go to Bluewater with my Mum at the weekend.’ As I got older however and developed depression, the thoughts changed. They became louder and more intrusive; all of a sudden there didn’t seem to be something to hang on for.
I was 16, I was hopeless and I was exhausted. The feeling of being exhausted with life at 16 was distressing but it also made me feel hopeless: if this is what life is like now, what on earth is adulthood going to be like with its attendant responsibilities and pressures?
Depression, however, is not the only reason people experience suicidal thoughts and experiencing them does not necessarily mean someone has a mental illness. Mental health charity MIND list a number of causes of suicidal thoughts including but not limited to: isolation and loneliness, bullying, bereavement and adjusting to change. It can be difficult, if we’ve never experienced it, to understand what can lead someone to think so extremely, but psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, who suffers from Bipolar disorder describes it really helpfully: ‘When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralysed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace.’
The mental health charity SANE conducted a piece of research on suicide in 2014 and found that alongside a lack of self-worth and an inability to trust in the future, exhaustion was a key part of people’s experience of suicidal thoughts. (You can read the rest of this research at sane.org.uk/ uploads/summary_of_findings.pdf.
If my depression was a loss of colour, suicidal thoughts were a loss of light. I could not see clearly, because I couldn’t conceive of a future. Being suicidal was my Holy Saturday, the day after death and before resurrection. Theologian Bruce G. Epperly said: ‘Holy Saturday is the time in between death and resurrection, fear and hope, pain and comfort. Holy Saturday is the valley of grief and uncertainty, for us and for Jesus’ disciples.’
Talking about suicidal thoughts is not something that comes naturally to anyone, but it has to be done
Holy Saturday is characterised by silence; the Bible doesn’t mention it and we tend not to mark it over the Easter period. Suicidal thoughts can feel like that - silenced because the reality is too painful to talk about. And yet we have to hold out the hope of Easter Sunday’s dawn to our young people lost in the darkness.
In the midst of my Holy Saturday, I had to begin to trust in the people who saw a future for me. And alongside my family and pastor, the people who showed me the possibility of a future were my youth workers. They were the ones who allowed me to voice my desperation; they asked me if I was having thoughts about suicide. They didn’t judge me, but they did imagine a life I could have if I hung on. They were passionate about me living to see the future and in the life I now lead. I’m passionate about enabling youth workers to understand how best to respond to suicidal young people.
Practically speaking, what they did for me was simple. They listened to me compassionately and they pointed me towards God, reminding me that he has walked before us and that he walks alongside us in the light and in the dark. They not only listened to my thoughts of dying, they demonstrated how to live and encouraged me to imagine what life could be like.
- Talking about or writing about death, dying or suicide
- Threatening to kill oneself
- A worsening mental health condition and agitation
- Dramatic brightening of mood after a period of depression
- Seeking access to means e.g. hoarding pills
- Reckless behaviour e.g. increased substance abuse
- Decreased hygiene
- Social withdrawal
- Preparing for death e.g. giving away possessions
If you notice any of these signs, talk to your young person and your safeguarding lead and ensure that they are seen by a medical professional as soon as possible.
How then, can we even begin these conversations? We need to talk about the tough stuff. It doesn’t mean we need to spend a whole session talking about suicide, instead it could be helpful to focus on a biblical narrative which includes that kind of despair or you might find it helpful to use World Suicide Prevention Day on 10th September. The story that I return to is of Elijah fleeing from Ahab to Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19. One of the reasons I find this story so powerful is because Elijah is a big deal in the Bible. He’s given this amazing commission by God and he is one of the heroes of the Old Testament, in fact Elijah is one of the guys who gets to stand beside the transfigured Jesus in the Promised Land. And yet we see Elijah at breaking point, struggling with his emotions and thoughts of suicide:
‘Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors. Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.’ (1 Kings 19:3-6)
If ever we needed proof that a relationship with God does not make us immune to suicidal thoughts, we find it here. Elijah is bold in his request for his life to end, but like many who struggle with thoughts of suicide, there’s a lot of ambivalence. Just one verse beforehand, Elijah runs for his life. Think about that: he runs for his life, and then he begs for death. It’s a common theme. Matt Haig wrote, ‘Even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same.’ This ambivalence is exhausting. As is evidenced by the fact that Elijah immediately falls asleep! The response we see is something beautifully simple:
‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.’ (1 Kings 19:7-9)
Talking about suicidal thoughts is not something that comes naturally to anyone, but it has to be done
I can imagine the angel reaching down to rest his hand on Elijah’s shoulder to point towards the nourishment of food and water. There’s a recognition that Elijah has been through a lot. His reaction isn’t abnormal. But Elijah’s dark night of the soul ended in a re-commissioning; in the still small voice of God calling him on into the next phase of his ministry.
The Still, Small Voice
In this passage we see a way we can respond to our young people struggling with thoughts of suicide.
Firstly, ensure that they are seen by a doctor as soon as possible. It’s also important to get your safeguarding lead and the young person’s parent or guardian involved so that together you can build a team of support.
Secondly, we need to listen. It can be all too easy to listen to what we think someone wants to say rather than what they actually mean. As youth workers we aren’t professional counsellors or therapists, but we can listen to why a young person is feeling so desperate.
Thirdly, we need to ensure that their physical needs are taken care of. Getting enough sleep and eating healthily might seem irrelevant, but our minds and bodies are connected and without enough food or sleep our emotions become even harder to manage.
Fourthly, gather the details of 24 hour helplines. It isn’t possible for parents to be around 24/7 and nor is it helpful for you to be available at all hours, so it’s vital that you can provide some places of support that a young person can access at any time day or night. Encourage the young person to create a safety plan, with details of potential triggers, helpful coping strategies and the numbers of people they can contact in a crisis.
Finally, supporting a young person with suicidal thoughts cannot be done in isolation. As Karen Mason writes, ‘Faith communities provide a connection to one another - a belongingness - that creates a buffer against suicide.’ Suicide prevention requires the whole church community working together: using the best language, being non-judgmental and working collaboratively with mental health services.
Suicidal thoughts do not need to lead to suicide. It is preventable. But first, we have to break the silence.