Encountering a suicide attempt: What to do

Encountering a suicide attempt can be scary and overwhelming. But this simple guide from the College of Policing explains how to handle it. 

It is undeniable that as a society, we’ve come a long way in terms of looking after our mental wellbeing. We're more aware of the detrimental impact of stress, we're better at setting boundaries, and most importantly, we're beginning to understand the importance of talking to one another.

Despite this, crises points and life-threatening situations still happen. Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions can leave people feeling isolated and hopeless, while the stigma that still surrounds mental illness can prevent people from reaching out for help. All of which can lead a person to thinking about endangering their life.

suicide prevention posters

At moments like these, talking is absolutely essential and can make all the difference between life and death. Steve Baker, Head of Mental Health at the College of Policing, the professional body for the police in England and Wales, is urging people all over the UK to be more open, talk to others and not be embarrassed to reach out for help.

He also shares insights gathered from police training, explaining what you can do and say in order to help someone who might be in crisis…

 

Don’t be afraid to talk

talking to a suicidal person

One of the first, and arguably most important things you can do if you see someone who is visibly upset and might pose a danger to themselves, is to talk to them.

Remember, if an individual is considering harming themselves, they are likely to feel extremely upset and lonely, so a conversation, even one about a mundane topic like the weather, might be enough to interrupt someone’s suicidal thoughts.

Once the person responds to your initial approach, try asking them open-ended questions such as "how do you feel?", as this can encourage them to open up and talk about their feelings.

 

Listen carefully

Once you establish initial contact and get the person talking, make sure that you are listening to what they are telling you.

Listening carefully and remember that the individual is in crisis, so it is important that they feel like they are being heard and that their feelings and concerns are valid.

 

Ask questions and express concern

be sure to keep talking and listening to a suicidal person

The next step is to keep the person talking, so make sure to keep asking questions. It is important to remember that most suicidal people feel ambivalent about dying, so asking them if they are suicidal or if they are thinking about attempting suicide is unlikely to tip them over the edge, but can instead provide them with a sense of relief and encourage them to keep talking.

As you keep talking and asking questions, avoid making accusatory statements, or being disapproving or critical of the person’s behaviour. The individual might already be feeling guilty because of the situations they’ve been experiencing, so be careful not to make these feelings worse.  

 

Remain patient

Talking to someone in crisis can be stressful and scary, however, you must remember to keep calm and remain patient. The person might repeat themselves or say things that make little sense to you, but it is key that you convey an attitude of concern and understanding.

Avoid sermonising or trying to problem-solve, focus on listening and keeping the person talking.

 

Give them space

give a suicidal person physical space

As you keep talking, you might feel an impulse to move the person out of harm’s way, however, it is important that you give them plenty of physical space. Getting too close to the person, making any sudden movements or attempting to touch them can be misinterpreted and cause them to react rashly.

Instead, remain at a distance that feels comfortable to the individual and keeps you safe—encourage others to remain at a safe distance as you keep talking and waiting for help to arrive. 

 

Don’t leave them alone

Even if it seems like the individual has calmed down, do not leave them alone and wait with them for help.

Once help has arrived, make sure that you share any information about the individual with them and only leave once you’ve been told that it is safe to do so.

 

Know where to look for help

Call the police if you think someone is likely to take their life

If you know someone that is struggling with depression, anxiety, stress or any other mental health issues, encourage them to speak to their GP, who will then be able to direct them to the appropriate services, or contact the local crisis team directly. Similarly, organisations like Mind or the Samaritans have resources readily available and can be a useful starting point when looking for help.

However, if you come across someone that is in real and immediate danger, you should alert the police. Any situation involving someone who is suicidal should be viewed as a psychiatric emergency, so make sure that you or someone near you has alerted the police and that help is on its way.

 

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