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Time to Ask Questions

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The mental health conversation is becoming more and more acceptable.

Anxiety, stress and depression are more understood than ever before, and we have a greater desire to encourage friends, family members, colleagues, partners and even strangers to take care of their mental health.

For those who might have become bored with hearing about mental health, we have introduced newer, sexier terminology such as ‘wellbeing’, ‘wellness’ and ‘staying well’ so that the subject doesn’t sound too heavy. After all, the stigma has not ended yet and I am still frequently in contact with professionals who fear admitting their mental health issues. It could still suggest weakness and shame that could hinder reputations, status and all-important career progression.

World Suicide Prevention Day reminds us that the harsh reality is this: mental health is not just about the ‘light-touch’ initiatives that are easy to implement at work, such as table tennis tables in breakout spaces and an increase in office plants. These are all great ways to create a mentally healthy workplace, but they can never be a remedy for serious and severe mental health issues.

To end the stigma for good, we must discuss mental health for all that it is. This includes those heavy subjects such as self-harm, psychosis and suicide that are easy to avoid. Not understanding these issues does not mean we cannot contribute to erasing their stigma. It just means that we must be prepared to listen more and have the courage to ask seemingly difficult questions.

World Suicide Prevention Day reminds us that sometimes our mental health can deteriorate so much that we might not be able to find a single reason to live. As a result, people might take the decision to end their lives. The numbers of people taking this decision is growing. Deaths by suicide have risen by 11.8% in the UK since 2018. The number of men ending their own lives is still three times greater than those of women who die by suicide. The rates of death among under 25s has increased sharply by 23.7%, totalling 730 deaths in 2018.

These are not just stats. They are lives. Lives that are important and precious. Lives that mean a huge amount to those that know them. Lives owned by people who are valued, people who are loved and significant. It is deeply saddening to think that in moments of mental ill health, people do not feel that any of the above is real.

These thoughts might have manifested during a set of circumstances we felt were unresolvable, maybe a life event that changed our identity, a feeling of deep regret or remorse. That same thinking can easily escalate into a louder internal voice and thereon a plan that becomes realised.

If people are feeling suicidal, from an outsider’s perspective we might not see the validity of their reasons. Surely, no situation or thought is worth our life? However, to effectively support them, we must trust that their reasons are valid to them.

Being human means that despite us not living the same life as someone else, we have the ability to share their feelings. We are able to empathise and identify the feelings of sadness, inadequacy and overwhelmingness. When we empathise with the feelings of another, we are making huge statements about how much we value them; empathy says we care, it tells an often very lonely person that we are there and that they are important to us.

We do not need to be an expert in someone else’s life to be able to support them. Nor do we need to be a mental health professional. Tapping into our ‘human side’ and using empathy to connect with one another is incredibly powerful. It can start with a simple question such as ‘how are you feeling?’ or even ‘how are you?’, asked with sincerity and patience. We really can save a life just by asking ‘how’s things?’, and meaning it.

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