Glasgow University professor speaks out on conversations around suicide - and how to approach the subject

A Glasgow University professor has teamed up with an NHS approved app to offer help and advice around suicide - ahead of Suicide Prevention Day.

Picture: Shutterstock

What’s happening? The team behind My Possible Self app and University of Glasgow’s Professor of Health Psychology, Rory O’Connor, are working to ensure this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day pushes past current limitations around the conversations about suicide.

Why it matters: One in 100 deaths worldwide is a result of someone taking their own life.

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Here they detail a range of approaches to help people with suicidal thoughts.

Action is the antidote to despair

World Suicide Prevention Day is important to acknowledge – and there are many ways we can do this, no matter where we are in the world. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action.

On an individual level, we can contact loved ones and check in with them. At a local level, check to see if any community events are happening – you can attend your local market, or go to a community kitchen if you’re stuck for ideas.

If you notice nothing is going on, think about what you can do in preparation for next year. At the government level, new services should be created so that people’s needs can be met and responded to.

Rory said: “creating hope is a benefit at any level, whether individual, an organisation, as a community, as a government - we can do things to create hope.

“And that hope on an individual level could just be you picking up the phone or sending a message to a friend or family member.”

Suicide can affect anyone

Understanding suicide is the best way to help those suffering and work to prevent it. It’s important to remember suicide can affect anyone, no matter their social class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or demographic.

Although mental illness is vital to the conversation, it’s not the only factor which leads to people ending their lives.

Rory said: “there’s a widely cited statistic which is 90 per cent who die by suicide have mental illness, but this is receiving push back”.

Looking at the statistics from a global perspective, it shows 79 per cent of the world’s suicides are occurring in low-middle income countries.

The IMV model (Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour) for suicide helps us to understand that the reasons for why people commit suicide are driven by feelings of defeat or being humiliated by life, of loss, shame, rejection and entrapment.

Mental illness is therefore a risk factor for suicide, but not the only cause.

Rory added: “suicide becomes an option when the pain of living outweighs the (sort of) pleasure of living. 

“Suicide is essentially about ending mental pain. As Ed Shneidman coined, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Talking about suicide is the way to challenge it

To help increase the amount of people who seek help when they are feeling suicidal, we need to work to reduce the stigma around it.

One of the barriers people face to seeking help are fierce feelings of shame, which hold them back. By increasing public conversation, we can change the narrative around suicide and make it easier for those suffering to come forward and receive the support they need.

This is only half the battle, however as Rory explained “there must be services and support out there, readily available and tailored to people’s needs.

“During this pandemic, there have been many instances of waiting lists for longer than 12-months for children and adolescents getting the support they require.”

We need to level up access to treatment, and also shine a light on the importance of optimising GP surgeries. As the gatekeepers to healthcare, they are on the frontline of helping to prevent suicide.

Suicidal thoughts - what to look out for

The sad reality is, we can’t predict who will die by suicide – partly because, in statistical terms, it’s still a rare event. But we can be more vigilant and attuned to signs and behaviours around us:

Is this person talking about feeling hopeless or being trapped? Do they express the belief they have no options?

People see suicide as a permanent solution to temporary problems, and those suicidal individuals aren’t see beyond the pain they’re in. Young people especially will struggle to see a future where they aren’t experiencing such anguish – a time when things won’t be so bad.

Suicide research shows suicidal thoughts wax and wane, which might be obvious to an observer. But it’s difficult for those experiencing them to see this.

  • Has the person demonstrated a change in behaviour? Are there different eating, sleeping, drinking or sexual behaviour patterns?
  • Has the person shown signs of ‘putting their life in order’? Their will, for example.
  • Has the person you are concerned about, who has been down, experienced a sudden recovery?

If there’s an unexplained recovery, an improved mood, this should raise alarm bells. Why have they recovered?

If this person is in the depths of despair, and have formulated that ending their life will solve their problems, then their mood will lift, because they feel as though their problems have been fixed.

This will in turn increase their cognitive capacity, which will enable them in planning and carrying out the act.

If this happens, it’s so important to ask the difficult question. Please reach out and ask ‘are you thinking about ending your life?’

It’s understandably a hard question, but it could be the start to a life-saving conversation. Most suicidal people are relieved when they hear this, and will help put their thoughts of shame to rest.

Suicide grief is different from other types of grief. Many people feel guilt and a sense of responsibility, asking themselves ‘what could I have done differently’.

Although the pathway through grief is different for everyone and a unique experience, some common feelings include; shame, anger, anger, guilt, rejection.

The way to support someone through this time is by remaining compassionate, curious and supportive.

Someone experiencing grief will benefit so much from a demonstration of companionship. Listen to them, create space for them to share their memories and be a listening ear. If the person asks you your opinion, give it. You won’t do any harm if you remain empathetic and available to them.

The most important thing is not avoid talking about it.

Further information: A lifelong passion for preventing suicide and working to help, understand and prevent suicide, Professor Rory O’Connorhas over 25 years of experience and expertise in this area. He’s the author or ‘When It Is Darkest - Why People Die By Suicide and What We Can Do To Prevent It’ and President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

The My Possible Self app will release a special episode of their podcast series in the lead up to World Suicide Prevention Day on Friday 10 September.