As a volunteer at a mental health support service it’s a question I ask several times a week. The responses can be challenging and exhausting to deal with, but thanks to my training I’m confident I’m doing all I can to support the person on the other end of the phone.
Shout 85258, the organisation I volunteer with, is a National Lottery funded, text-based support line for anyone who is struggling to cope. As one of its volunteers, my job is to listen to and support the people who contact the service who may be at risk of harm. The service is confidential and anonymous, unless we believe a life is at risk in which case we work with our supervisor and emergency services to get them urgent assistance.
When in a text conversation we want to hear more about the texter’s experiences, establish a rapport and trust, so we can talk about their immediate safety in that moment and if they are at risk of harm. The aim of our conversations is to work together to reach a cooler and calmer mindset, so that after the conversation is over the texter feels able to carry on, safely.
When I ask someone in distress if they have thought about ending their lives, it can help them to feel heard and supported. At first, it felt like I was taking the conversation to a very dark place. I am, but until you ask the question you won’t know how they are really feeling, and how safe/unsafe they are. Asking someone if they are feeling suicidal does not make them any more likely to act on thoughts. Yes, it can feel uncomfortable, but there is no more powerful way of showing someone that you’re there for them. I used to be a Samaritan (coincidentally, another National Lottery funded organisation) where we would offer a similar service, but on the phone. I can tell you that when you hear the response to that question you will know you’ve really made a difference.
World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10th. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action. But what does Creating Hope Through Action mean?
Suicide is often the very last resort. Creating Hope Through Action is aiming to remind us that there is an alternative to suicide and we can take steps to provide hope to those who are struggling. Suicide is usually an act that has been considered and planned for some time. One of the questions I sometimes ask Shout texters is ‘Do you want your life to be over, or do you want the current situation to be over?’. The answer is often the latter and can elicit surprise from the person who thought they no longer wanted to live. It’s an opportunity to explore their feelings further. What they’re wanting is hope; hope their situation can and will change.
So, from my point of view, if you’d like to help others, here are some actions you might choose to take, which embody Hope Through Action:
- Spending time with a friend to talk through their problems, really listen to them, and help lessen the burden.
- Volunteering your time to help people in your community who might be struggling. Often these feelings are putting more pressure on them than they realise.
- Promoting the subject of mental health and wellbeing and encouraging others to talk about it openly.
- Practicing self-care and giving yourself hope by taking time to enjoy the things that bring you joy, whilst recharging your own batteries.
Above all else, if you’re worried about a friend, ask them if they’re OK, then ask again. We can hear this question often, and have our own stock responses, so we don’t truly have to answer. If someone’s presentation or tone doesn't match the answer, a follow up question such as ‘Are you sure, you seem a bit down?’ is quite likely to get a more honest response.
After that, take some time to listen and let your friend feel heard. If they want support then help them to find it, but remember it’s not always about fixing a problem for someone, sometimes listening is the most important thing you can do.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, spend some time thinking about how you can create Hope Through Action. If you’re struggling, please know there is help available. There is your GP, friends and family. You can also text SHOUT to 85258 for free, at any time of day or night, for confidential support from a trained volunteer. You are not alone - your life matters and there is always another way.