Environment & Health HKFP Voices

World Suicide Prevention Day: How to discuss self-harm, and how to help

Saturday marks World Suicide Prevention Day and, chances are, we all know someone who has self-harmed or attempted suicide. It’s clearly an important issue, yet there’s never enough public discussion on this highly-stigmatised topic. The less we openly discuss it, the more hidden it becomes and we are ultimately perpetuating the illusion that this topic should remain in the background.

suicide hold hand mental health

File photo: Wikicommons.

A study in May revealed that 27% of students have considered ending their life or self-harming. The phenomenon is more prevalent than we would like to admit. So, rather than ignoring them or offering them an overused cliche, what can we truly do to help?

There are two basic things we can all do:
1. Ask open questions that focus on the emotions rather on the details, and
2. Suspend judgment.

Research shows a direct link between people who end their life by suicide and those who have a history of self-harming. Sadly, the common truth is that we as friends, family, and loved ones make a habit of dismissing these acts as someone simply seeking attention. While there may indeed be some such cases, marginalising all as “attention seeking” is a really quick and convenient way for us to ignore those who are calling for help.

student suicide

Photo: Apple Daily.

Self-harm may come about for multiple reasons. People could be having a difficult time regulating, expressing, or understanding emotions. They may be unable to cope with emotions and psychological pain in healthy ways. People who self-harm often feel they can let out their emotional pain by inflicted physical pain on the body.

See also: HKFP’s comprehensive guide to mental health services in Hong Kong

It’s definitely a sensitive subject, so it’s very important that we talk about these issues in a way that doesn’t put the person back in an uncomfortable position or worse, causing them to relapse.

How to ask questions:

The how, why and who of the underlying problems are not the most important details when trying to explore the feelings of someone who is experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. Try to stay away from questions like why did this happen? Instead we should be asking questions like how does that make you feel? Imagine how you would feel in the same situation – not what you would have done differently.

help hold hand

File photo: The Samaritans.

Suspend Judgment:

Suspending judgment – probably something very difficult to do when we instinctively want to do it – is crucial for people experiencing that emotional roller coaster. As a listener, it is essential to acknowledge their truth; no matter what the story. It is possible that this is how the person may have experienced it. Since we are not conducting an investigation, it’s okay to suspend our usual judgment and accept the story as told, even momentarily. This way, the person telling the story can focus on their feelings and will not feel they’re trying to justify your company.

Suicide is often preventable when we can spot the telltale signs and take necessary steps to address the situation. As dark a topic of discussion it may be, it’s better to talk about it in a safe and open environment than when it’s too late simply because we failed to see the signs presented in front of us.

Saturday was World Suicide Prevention Day. To honour our family and friends who have been affected by this issue, please take a moment to light a candle and place it by the window.

Deborah Crouch is the Chief Executive of The Samaritans. The Samaritans is a non-profit, non-religious organisation giving confidential emotional support to people who are suicidal or are in general distress. The service is provided to anyone regardless of age, creed, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

If you are experiencing simply experiencing low mood or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please call the Samaritans’ 24-hour hotline at 2896 0000 or our crisis email at [email protected] for to talk to a trained volunteer.

World Suicide Prevention Day: How to discuss self-harm, and how to help