the 'task' of talking about suicide

The ‘task’ of talking.

Guest feature

23rd September 2021

This post was written by Anja Gollin, an RMN working in psychiatric liaison.

Another referral comes in with the request ‘patient is expressing suicidal ideation and needs someone to talk to’. Maybe 2-3 of these with adapted wording are received every day.

Since when, as healthcare professionals, have we stopped having the time to talk to someone? What has driven us to become so task orientated in our roles that we forget that it’s a human being in front of us telling us they no longer wish to live or have feelings of hopelessness? We have sadly reduced this down to a task. A panicked moment of not knowing what to say or do and knowing we have so much more to deal with that shift. ‘I’ll make a referral for you’.

In what world has it become acceptable for our response to someone expressing deep sadness and pain to be ‘I’ll pass you on to someone who has more time and feels more comfortable talking about this than I do’?

It’s very rarely, if ever, malicious in its intent. We work in healthcare because of exactly that. We care. Yet somewhere between wanting to save the world and caring about everything and everyone in it and the endless weight of need on the NHS, we forgot about the little things. The listening, the reassuring, the wiping of tears and the holding of hands. We forget that we don’t have to have the answers, sometimes we simply just need to listen to the question and accept that this can be enough.

We don’t have to fix everything.

So many of us are working directly with people who feel this way and struggle to identify someone to be open with. It is such a brave and vulnerable act to be honest with a stranger about your difficult emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Yet time and time again we aren’t giving our patients the time they need, we aren’t giving people, human beings just like us, the response they deserve to that bravery.

It’s a worry to have the intention to help someone and believe that you my indirectly cause someone to act on their thoughts if you acknowledge them. This is simply not the case. Research has shown that talking openly about suicide has a significant impact on reducing the person’s desire to act on their feelings. It can be lonely and terrifying to have thoughts of suicide and not know how to express them safely. By offering a space to talk openly about what the person is going through, and simply acknowledging that feeling this way is physically and emotionally difficult, our patients often feel relief in this validation.


Here are some simple tips for supporting your patients:

Ask simple and direct questions: It’s important to know what their intentions are and properly understand what they are feeling. Try and avoid closed questions to help the person express themselves and be more open.

Take everyone seriously: No one is telling you they are suicidal as a joke. Regardless of intention to act, this person may be feeling something they are struggling to express. Take them seriously and help them unpick their thoughts and feelings.

Make the time: You may have other things to do but this is not a task to complete. Give the person the opportunity they need to say what they feel and try not to rush them.

Listening is enough: You don’t have to have the answers! Simply listening to someone and acknowledging that they must be suffering is often enough. It’s ok to be honest by saying that you don’t know what to say, but that you want to listen instead.

It’s time to reflect on our practice and make some changes to how we respond. Let’s get back in touch with the compassion that made us who we are as healthcare professionals and start making time for the emotions that make us all human.

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