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Most people who think about suicide don’t tell anyone. Here’s why and what we can do about it


Many people at risk of suicide go unnoticed and unsupported in our community, our research suggests.

Us recently published study found that less than half of people tell someone they are thinking about suicide, planning or have attempted suicide.

Here are some reasons why people don’t talk about this often, and what you can do to help a friend or loved one get the support they need.

Read more: RU OK day is coming, but what do you do when someone says ‘no’?

We are not getting better at forecasting

In 2021 in Australia, 3,144 people died by taking their own lives (2,358 men and 786 women).

Worldwide, more than 700,000 people take their lives every year. Globally, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds.

But our ability to predict who will have suicidal thoughts and behaviors or take their own lives hasn’t really improved 50 years of research.

Because suicide is relatively uncommon (as a percentage of the population), it is difficult to identify robust risk factors for suicide that we can generalize across the population.

Read more: Suicide risk is high for military and aid workers, but support for their families and peers is lacking

We need to know who’s at risk

One of the most critical steps in understanding and managing suicide risk is for individuals to disclose their suicidal thoughts and behaviors to other people. It also gives us the opportunity to mobilize support.

However, when colleagues and I looked at the evidencewe found that less than 50% of people tell someone else about their suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Even if they had these thoughts or behaviors in the past month, only an estimated 38% of people told someone. Most people never disclose suicidal thoughts or behaviors, no matter how long ago they occurred.

Most people never disclose suicidal thoughts or behaviors, no matter how long ago they occurred.

Our study was a meta-analysis, which combined information from nearly 100 studies to estimate how often people made public.

Women were slightly more likely to disclose than men and were more likely to disclose when associated with a psychiatric disorder.

Strikingly, nearly 60% of the studies of people who had died by suicide had no documented evidence that they had told someone they had thoughts or plans to end their lives.

Simply put, the findings suggest that a large number of people at risk of suicide go unnoticed and unsupported.

Read more: ​​​​Why are we losing so many Indigenous children to suicide?

Why don’t people say anything?

Reasons people not reveal thoughts of suicide Involving: Stigma and shame about having the thoughts, fear of rejection or unsupportive responses from others, worry about being a burden to other people, and believing there is nothing they can do about it.

Worrying about the consequences of telling other people, such as hospitalization or unwanted treatment, can be especially important when people have had negative experiences with disclosure in the past.

a lack of trust in expressing oneself is another major barrier. Some people avoid thinking about it or talking about it as their main way of coping.

Have more social support may increase the likelihood of revealing suicidal thoughts. This is important as most of the revelations are made family or friends. More understanding and knowledge about suicide also appears to be associated with a higher likelihood of disclosure.

How do we start conversations?

Public campaigns to increase mental health knowledge and normalize discussion of suicide likely helped facilitate disclosures. Usually this means talking about it.

Asking someone indirectly about the risk of suicide can be more comfortable, for example by asking how they are doing or how they are doing. But the question can be misunderstood or answered in a “socially desirable” way.

A conversation can go like, “How are you?”, with the answer, “Yeah, not bad.”

Is everything all right?
General questions, such as “Are you okay?” may not work. Could ask more direct questions.

But research shows asking more direct questions does not increase their sadness or cause someone to have more suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

So, clear questions – like “Do you have thoughts of ending your life?” or “Thinking about hurting yourself?” – can help draft an answer.

Asking how safe they feel right now can also be helpful: “Do you feel safe right now?”

Offering the choice not to respond can lead to opportunities to ask about it later. You can say, “It’s okay if you don’t want to answer that right now.”

Talking about suicide can be difficult. But knowing that we don’t have to be perfect at it, and that we aren’t tasked with solving all of a person’s problems, is important.

Read more: How do you ask someone you’re worried about if they’re thinking about suicide?

You can really help

For some people, suicidal thoughts reflect a negative or hopeless mental state, but no intention to harm themselves. Most people those who have suicidal thoughts do not end their lives.

But what you can do for someone is significant.

First, the emotional support and acceptance you show by simply asking and listening is extremely important in helping people feel understood and cared for. This can help normalize and destigmatize their experience. Depending on your relationship, you may want to learn more about what drives those thoughts, and being curious and non-judgmental can help.

Second, you can provide simple practical support by asking someone what they need. You could try, “Is there anything you need right now?” How can I help?”. You can encourage them to tell loved ones and support them to seek professional help. This could be their GP, a mental health professional, to call a helpline, or 000 if the person seems very unsafe.

If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, dial 000.

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