Suicide: How to support during crisis moments

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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Supporting someone – a student or colleague – who is suicidal may feel daunting, but you can make a difference with some small actions. Dr Pooky Knightsmith explains


Suicide is a topic that feels taboo and as such it is something that many people feel ill-equipped to respond to.

It might feel like something that won’t touch your life. However, working in a school it is perfectly possible that you might find yourself in the situation where you can save the life of a student or staff member by responding well enough in a crisis moment.

A little knowledge, and a dose of confidence, can go a long way – so in this article I want to share some simple ideas to help you step up to the mark during crisis moments.


You can do this

The first thing to note is that you are absolutely capable of managing this situation. You might not do it perfectly, but you can make a difference, and it is important that you try.


Try to convey calm

When supporting someone who is suicidal, you are likely to feel pretty panicked. It is important to try to stay calm if you can because calmness is catching (even if it is fake calmness). A few pointers to help you:

  • Be the swan: Even if you are frantically paddling below the surface, try to appear calm like the swan gliding through the water.
  • Think about your breathing: Consciously slow your breaths. The person you are supporting will co-regulate and their breathing will gradually slow to match yours.
  • Think about your body position: Again, relaxed body language (even if you don’t feel relaxed) will show the person that you are in control.
  • Use slow-low-low talking: Slow down the pace of your speech, lower the volume and lower the pitch to convey calm. Speak as if reading a soothing bedtime story. No matter what you say, words said this way feel like a virtual handhold to someone who is struggling.

If you find that you are struggling to convey calm because you are feeling very panicked, take a moment to plant your feet firmly on the ground, close your eyes and take a deep, centring breath. This simple act can give you a moment to collect your thoughts and can rapidly help you to feel calmer and in control.


Remain present

The most important thing is to remain physically and emotionally present in the face of distress. You do not need to say and do the perfect things. By simply being there you send a really powerful message and will enable the person struggling to know they are not alone. A few pointers to help you:

  • Never leave someone who is suicidal alone.
  • Simply sitting in silence is often enough. It might seem quiet and awkward to you, but they have probably got a lot of noise going on.
  • You can provide reassurance by saying things like: “I’m right here.” “I’m with you.” “I’m not going anywhere.”
  • You can remain present in a similar way even if you are on the end of a phone line or video call.


Seek places and faces of safety

Never leave a suicidal person alone but take them with you if you can to find places or people who will help to keep them safer. A few pointers to help you:

  • Try to move away from danger if possible (a few steps can make a big difference).
  • Try to move towards places that feel safe and comfortable.
  • Think about whether there is someone who can help – can you go to them or call them to come to you?
  • Involve the person in deciding who else should be involved.
  • Call the Samaritans or a crisis helpline if you need support for both of you – they will be happy to support you both through the crisis situation, and you will feel less alone.

You can call the Samaritans on 116 123 any time of day or night, whether you are the person who needs help or you are supporting someone.


Ask connecting questions

Build bridges with the person you are supporting by asking them questions that show you care and that you are listening. Every time you ask a question that creates connection you give them more reason to stay present in the world.

  • Listen to understand rather than to respond – be genuinely curious.
  • Try to get them onto topics they are passionate about or have a deep interest in.
  • Ask them questions that show you are listening or have listened in the past.
  • Look around you for prompts – for example, if they have badges on their bag, ask about them.


Find reasons to stay alive

We do not need to find big reasons for a person to stay alive forever, we just need to find reasons to get them through right now. It can feel easier to defer the decision to die than to commit to staying alive ad finitum.

So what might be a reason to stay alive today, tomorrow, just until the end of the week?

  • Focus on small things they might look forward to.
  • Wonder aloud with them about where they were meant to be today or tomorrow.
  • Think about friends, pets, family who they might want to spend a little time with.
  • Or a film they can’t wait to see, or the next episode of a favourite television show.

Remember, you are not looking for something earth-shattering or a promise that they will never consider suicide again, just enough motivation to encourage them to stick around another hour. The longer term can be tackled later.


Look for distractions

Try to take their mind away from thoughts of dying. Any distraction will do no matter how daft it might seem, your role here is to try to fill their head with superfluous other thoughts rather than the big scary ones.

  • Watch the clouds and look for shapes.
  • Try a grounding activity like 5,4,3,2,1 (name five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, and take one deep breath).
  • Listen to music together or watch some videos.
  • Show them photos on your phone. If they like animals, introduce your pets.
  • Ask their opinion on something that will get them thinking.

Absolutely anything goes here, use your knowledge of the person/child, things you have to hand or simply a favourite topic that you feel comfortable talking about.


The one-minute rule

This may all feel big and scary and it is! But remember – you only ever have to get through the next minute. That often feels more doable for you and more doable for the person struggling too. Don’t over complicate it, just get through one minute, then think about the next one. Use a timer on your phone, one song, or one episode of a favourite television show. Notice how things feel – is there any change (on a 1 to 10 scale) after the first minute? The second?

The aim is to allow them to calm and emotionally regulate enough to begin to access their thinking, speaking brain and to plan some safe next steps with you. We are looking to try to prevent an impulsive act that might end their life and move towards a calmer place of relative safety right now.


Afterwards, write a safety plan

Once the danger has passed this time, in addition to involving the appropriate other adults and making the relevant referrals, a simple but life-saving act can be to write a safety plan with the person who is struggling. This will help to keep them safe and will help you, and relevant others, to help them too. You can complete a safety plan online (see https://stayingsafe.net/) and the act of using this framework for discussion can remove some of the awkwardness and taboo of having a discussion about suicide.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via www.pookyknightsmith.com or follow her on Twitter @PookyH. For her previous articles in SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/seced-knightsmith


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