In June this year, former contestant Sophie Gradon took her own life – and shortly afterwards her boyfriend also died by his own hand.
Suicide cannot be ignored – not in our communities, not in our churches and not in our youth groups – because it is the biggest killer of young people in the UK.
As a teenager I could easily have been a part of that statistic; mental illness and chronic suicidal thoughts were a part of my life and thankfully my family, my church and my youth leaders offered me enough hope to hold on until I could hold hope for myself.
I disproved one of the most prevalent and dangerous myths around suicide:
“If they’re talking about suicide, they aren’t going to do anything.”
Young people in despair, young people like I was desperately need to be able to voice their hopelessness, and as youth workers we need to be prepared to hear the hardest words.
Disclosures around suicide may present themselves in a number of ways; it might be in an offhand comment, a friend’s worry or in a mentoring session and the way we respond is vital.
The first step has to be to listen. So often when we are hearing a disclosure from a young person we can get so caught up in the safeguarding “need to knows” that we miss the story the young person is trying to share with us. Listen to the story first and then go back and ask the clarifying questions that will help you to respond safely.
Secondly, think about the language you’re using. Suicide has not been a crime in the UK since 1962 and yet so often we use the legal language when we’re referring to suicide. Instead of using phrases such as “committed suicide” or “failed suicide attempt”, move towards language such as “died by suicide” or “incomplete suicide attempt.” The Bible promises us that God doesn’t punish us for struggling – it’s seen in the life of Elijah, David and Jesus. Isaiah 42.3 declares: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”
Use days such as World Suicide Prevention Day in September to talk to your youth group about suicide, and let them know that you are available to talk both for those struggling and for those who might notice their friends are struggling.
Thirdly, don’t be afraid to be direct. Asking a young person if they’ve had thoughts of suicide is not going to give them the idea or encourage, but it might just enable them to open up. Shame is suicide’s greatest ally as because it silences people – by being open about suicide we allow young people to open up. As Ann Voskamp writes; “Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.”
Rachael Newham is the Founder of ThinkTwice and the the author of Learning to Breathe.