World Suicide Prevention Day: A psychiatrist’s take on what to do when someone is feeling suicidal

A bad word, thought to be restricted to the hallowed halls of psychiatric wards, and whispered behind closed doors, talk of suicide is stigmatised in our society. No matter how far we think we’ve come, we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to learning, and unlearning things about suicide and suicide prevention, starting with talking about it.

This World Suicide Prevention Day, we spoke to Dr Kedar Tilwe, psychiatrist & sexologist at Hiranandani Hospital (a Fortis Network Hospital), Mumbai, on how to tackle a conversation about suicide, how to spot the warning signs, and what to do when someone we love tells us they’re feeling suicidal. 

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ELLE: Given the current situation, we can’t always physically be there for the ones we love. There is a little bit of an emotional disconnection, which can leave a lot of people feeling lonely, and in some cases, maybe even suicidal. How can these thoughts be tackled?

Dr Kedar Tilwe: Even when it seems like you’re lonely, you’re really not, there is always someone you can talk to. And your best bet is to talk to them about it. Think of the people around you as your support system, and you harming yourself will harm that support group as well, so it is better to reach out to someone you can trust. Don’t let your social distancing turn into emotional distancing, and remember that your actions will impact at least one person, so it’s always a good idea to reach out to them.

ELLE: We need to remember that warning signs for suicide may not necessarily be as black and white as a verbalised threat. What are some subtle signs to look out for? 

KT: Aside from verbalising the threat, and harming oneself, the signs can sometimes be as subtle as posting something out of the ordinary on social media. Social media is a great platform for self-expression, and that can also translate to people putting suicidal thoughts out there, even if it is in the form of a display picture, a status message, or a post. Anything out of the ordinary that hints towards suicidal thoughts should not be taken lightly and the most basic thing you can do is contact them. A little communication goes a long way, and if everything turns out to be fine, there’s no harm done.

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ELLE: When someone close to us tells us that they are feeling suicidal, how can we be there for them without being present physically?

KT: The first and foremost thing to remember is this: if someone trusts you enough to share this with you, never trivialise the way they’re feeling. Don’t ask questions like ‘How can you do this?’ or ‘Why are you thinking this way?’ Instead, keep your statements simple and focus on the immediate — ask them to do a simple, shared activity with you, like eating something together, while on call. Don’t hang up until you feel reassured that the other person has calmed down and check up on the person the next day. If you can, inform someone in the physical vicinity of the person who can check up on them as well. Bringing someone in from your mutual support system, even if it is just to talk about something fun, can really help as well. And the most important thing to do is suggest, remind, and gently nudge them into seeking professional help. 

ELLE: What are some ways we can have a sensitive, yet fruitful conversation with someone who may be feeling suicidal?

KT: Help them connect to a different emotion on the spectrum. Firstly, help them focus on the next — the next day, week, or month. Regardless of the number of stressors involved, there is always one area of life that remains unaffected, and the future can focus on that one area. Distraction is a great technique as well, although it shouldn’t be employed if the threat is imminent. Whether it’s reminiscing about a happier time in life (with the hope that it will return), helping them focus on mundane tasks, or even talking about something as random as a bad movie you saw together… these conversations can have a lasting, positive impact on a person. It is important to remember that while feeling suicidal is a state, the act itself is an impulse. And being there for someone until that impulse subsides is one of the most helpful things you can do.

ELLE: What if they refuse or resist seeking help?

KT: Sometimes people require suggestions, sometimes they require reminders, and sometimes they require gentle nudges. If it comes down to a gentle nudge, you have to take the necessary effort (tactfully) to make sure they go to seek professional help. With online mental health services nowadays, another way to get them to seek help is to be on the video call or the phone call with them as they talk to the professional, which is a great way to be there for someone, virtually.

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September 10 is observed as World Suicide Prevention Day

24×7 suicide prevention helplines: 

Fortis Stress Helpline (+9183768 04102 ), Aasra (+91 98204 66726), Sneha (044-24640050) 


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