OPINION: A tough conversation but one we must have

MOST people's lives have directly or indirectly been touched by suicide in some way.

Either because they have thought about suicide, attempted suicide, lost someone they know to suicide or had friends or colleagues that have been affected by it.

Worldwide we have used the slogan "Suicide prevention is everybody's business" for a number of years and this is probably something that will be reinforced today on World Suicide Prevention Day.

But if suicide prevention is everybody's business, what are we doing to up-skill and support 'everybody' for this role?

As a community, we have been much more open about the need to talk more about suicide.

However, the discussion (at least publicly) has often been confusing and contradictory.

As someone who has looked at this issue perhaps from more angles and in more depth than many others, I am often asked whether talking about suicide is different to other issues.

In short, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. Let's start with some assumptions up front.

Given that suicide is a preventable cause of death which is important to individuals, families and communities, saying nothing about how to prevent it makes no sense.

If you are worried that someone may be thinking about suicide, saying nothing to them makes no sense.

And, if you know someone who has experienced a loss, saying nothing also makes no sense.

But then, what do we say and how do we say it?

This is where some of the complexity and confusion comes in.

What makes communication about suicide different is that people can interpret information differently based on their own values and experiences, their connection to the issue and whether they are currently contemplating suicide or not.

It is the thing that makes mass communication (for example media reporting or campaigns) so tricky to get right.

While most people will not be adversely affected by discussion about suicide or discussion about a suicide death, people who are vulnerable may be negatively affected if the conversation is not handled sensitively and the messages carefully thought through.

For example, in our attempts to raise awareness of the extent of the problem, we may inadvertently reinforce the thinking of someone who is contemplating suicide.

But just because there may be considerations in certain circumstances, that does not mean the topic should be avoided.

Instead, it highlights the need for careful planning to ensure that those tasked with talking to groups of people about suicide are well informed about the nuances involved and have mechanisms in place to manage any impact the discussion may have.

However, on the balance, where individual conversations are concerned, I would argue that avoiding the conversation may be worse than fumbling your way through it.

Many of us will notice changes in the people around us.

While there are a number of warning signs you can find out about, often your own sense that "something is not right" will be enough to signal a conversation is needed.

While these discussions can be uncomfortable and difficult to start, avoiding the discussion can lead to the person feeling more isolated and unsupported.

Similarly, when someone we know loses a loved one to suicide, we often stay away for fear of saying the wrong thing or making the situation worse.

But the silence of others can reinforce the stigma and shame the person may already be feeling.

You do not need to be an expert in these situations to make a difference.

While these two types of conversations may seem different, there are some general tips that would apply in both scenarios:

● It is better to reach out than avoid the person or the conversation. Decide to talk to them, preferably face-to-face, and allocate enough time;

● Listen without judgment or criticism and try to use open-ended questions so they do the talking. Don't try to fix the situation or minimise the way they are feeling. People want understanding rather than solutions;

● If you are worried they are thinking about suicide, then ask directly and be prepared for the answer;

● Talk to the person about who else to involve so they can be supported, and encourage them to seek help. There are a range of face-to-face, online and telephone counselling options available to people who are suicidal and for people who have been impacted by suicide;

● Take care of yourself. These conversations can be difficult and you may need support as well.

Today, to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, a new online resource to support community discussion of suicide has been announced. Conversations Matter, developed by the Hunter Institute of Mental Health and funded by the NSW Ministry of Health, will provide practical information to support communities and the suicide prevention sector.

The resources will be available from late October at conversationsmatter.com.au.

Anyone in need of immediate assistance should talk to someone they trust or contact one of the following national 24/7 crisis services:

● Lifeline 13 11 14

● Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

● Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

● MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78

Jaelea Skehan is the director at Hunter Institute of Mental Health and a conjoint teaching fellow in the school of medicine and public health at the University of Newcastle.

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