Concern about suicidality is very high in our community at the moment, not just during COVID, but as many of you would know, suicidal behaviour has increased over the last 10 or 20 years.

Friends, family members, often are very legitimately concerned about people they know who appear stressed, depressed, not themselves and whether they may be suicidal or not. This is a tough area, and how do you actually approach it as a friend or family member in a way that you feel comfortable and is actually helpful and constructive?

Start a conversation about how they’re feeling

So, the first thing that’s really important to understand, is that asking about whether that person feels down or asking about whether that person feels so low that they’re thinking about taking their own life, there’s no evidence that that will encourage or increase the likelihood of that person taking their own life. So, if you’re worried that someone that you know may be feeling suicidal, the most critical thing is really to get into a conversation with that person about how they’re feeling, and whether there are serious stresses in their life or serious pressures or serious disturbance in the way they’re feeling that could increase the risk. Let’s hope that that has happened.

The other area where you may be more concerned is if that person has had a previous history or track record of making attempts on their life. That obviously increases one’s concern, and quite reasonably I would say. So, if there’s a past history of the person taking their own life and they’ve previously been in a similar disturbance of their mood in the way they are at this point in time, well then, of course, the risk is gonna be higher.

Is there a family history of suicide?

And then, finally, another risk factor is if there’s been a family history of suicide. That does tend to increase likelihood, and being aware of that should reasonably increase your concern. So, as a friend or family member, it is not your responsibility, obviously, to treat someone who is feeling depressed or maybe suicidal. But if you can create an opportunity to get that person to disclose to you how they’re really feeling and the extent to which they’re contemplating self-harming, then you have an opportunity to support them in getting treatment from a professional.

Dr Matthew Cullen, Psychiatrist, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney

Last Reviewed: 07/10/2020

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