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When silence isn’t golden

In the United States, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline have reportedly jumped following the deaths by suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain.

Jaelea Skehan, director of the Newcastle-based Everymind, which works to prevent mental ill-health and suicide, provides some timely advice in the article below for having conversations around suicide.


Jaelea Skehan writes:

The suicide death of two international celebrities has sent shock waves through our communities again in the past week.

But for many individuals, families and communities this is not a new feeling. It is merely a feeling that is amplified with media attention and shared grieving on social media.

With about 2,800 people taking their lives each year in Australia and a conservative estimate of 65,000 suicide attempts each year, that is tens of thousands of families and community networks impacted each and every year.

Many are impacted by multiple and overlapping ripples of impact. These ripples do not just fade into insignificance, but the impacts are felt long into the future, with each ripple adding a new layer of emotional complexity.

When someone lives with suicidal thoughts, it has an impact. When someone attempts suicide, it has an impact. When a suicide occurs, it has an impact.

And often, that impact is devastating. More like a king tide than a ripple for those in its direct path.

But, this is what I have come to know – from both my professional and personal experience. Just as people find it hard to reach out and talk to someone we think might be at risk of suicide, we also find it hard to reach out and offer support to those impacted by suicide.

Is this because of the stigma still attached to suicide? Possibly. Is it because they don’t think it is an experience requiring support? I doubt that.

The most common reason that I have heard is that people just don’t know what to say. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, so instead they say nothing. But the very act of staying away can reinforce the isolation, stigma and shame that the person may already be feeling.

I believe that we have media guidelines for reporting suicide for very good reason. And when it comes to reporting celebrity suicide those should be followed even more closely, because the impacts are real.

But that does not mean we want our community, our people, to stay silent. We need to empower them to have the conversation.

Because losing someone to suicide should not be met with silence from those around us.

So for those who perhaps are still worried about saying the wrong thing, here are some tips I’ve taken from the Conversations Matter resources to get you started:

  1. It is better to reach out than avoid the person. If you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, it is ok to show concern and let them know that you don’t know what to say. There may be times when your offer to talk is refused. That’s ok, try again later.
  2. People are different, so the way they grieve and the way they communicate about that grief will be different. So don’t have any preconceived ideas about how someone should think, feel or behave after a loss.
  3. Listen without judging. You may not be able to change the way a person is feeling, but you can assist just by listening and being there.
  4. Let the person explore their feelings and know that these may change over time. It is normal for a person impacted by suicide experience feelings of confusion, guilt, blame, anger and sadness.
  5. Be open and talk freely about the person who died. Don’t change the subject or avoid using the person’s name.
  6. Avoid judgemental language and steer clear of words like “selfish or weak”. Also try to avoid statements that make the death sound like it had a positive outcome, for example “he is in a better place now”.
  7. Encourage the person to get support from others close to them, health professionals or specialist bereavement support services or peers.
  8. Keep in touch and offer to be someone they can talk to when they need it. Remember that birthdays, anniversaries and special events may be difficult for a long time into the future.
  9. Look after yourself and don’t be afraid to show your own emotions.
  10. Learn about other support services or get some further training if you want to get more involved.

They say silence is golden. Not in this case. What is golden is the ability to reach out to those around us affected by the ripples of suicide.

• Follow @jaeleaskehan on Twitter


Useful resources

To find out more about how to discuss suicide – visit www.conversationsmatter.com.au

For a list of agencies and resources to support the community in Australia, visit www.lifeinmindaustralia.com.au

Useful services for those impacted by suicide in Australia:

National StandBy Response Service – www.standbysupport.com.au

Headspace Schools – www.headspace.org.au/schools

Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467 or www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Lifeline – 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au

Support After Suicide – www.supportaftersuicide.org.au

Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement – www.grief.org.au

Visit your GP and/or find a psychologist through www.psychology.org.au

• This article was first published at Linkedin and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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