Wednesday 8 September 2021

Maybe Even Save a Life: Our Message of Hope for World Suicide Prevention Day

It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. (Fran Houston)

World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action:

Creating Hope Through Action is a reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and aims to inspire confidence and light in all of us; that our actions, no matter how big or small, may provide hope to those who are struggling. Preventing suicide is often possible and you are a key player in its prevention. Through action, you can make a difference to someone in their darkest moments — as a member of society, as a child, as a parent, as a friend, as a colleague or as a neighbour. We can all play a role in supporting those experiencing a suicidal crisis or those bereaved by suicide.

This is a topic very close to our hearts and never far from our thoughts. Suicidal thinking has been part of my friendship with Fran since we met ten years ago. Indeed, it’s how we met, when we each reached out to a young woman who was expressing suicidal thoughts on her social media page.

For WSPD 2020, we posted a selection of relevant articles from our blog. This year, we’re sharing an excerpt from the chapter of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder which deals with supporting someone when they’re feeling suicidal. In the spirit of “creating hope through action” we hope it conveys the vital message that each one of us can make a difference to those we care about.

High Tide, Low Tide will be available FREE on Kindle for five days, September 10–14, 2021.


How Can I Leave?

I remember clearly the first time Fran told me our friendship was one of the main things keeping her alive. I was profoundly moved, but had the presence of mind to realise this was not as simple as it appeared. In a moment of insight I said, “You may come to hate me for that, Fran.” Her reply was immediate and sincere. “I’m already there.” It has become something of a private joke between us, but it is a joke with edges.

Fran: I wish I hadn’t met you. I’d be gone already.

Martin: I told you long ago, Fran, that you would come to hate me for that. You’d better get used to it. You have years of hating me ahead of you!

I asked her once if she truly believed she would not be alive if it were not for me. “Yes it is true. You hold me here. You nag and pull and push at me all the time with your love and your care. How can I leave?”

Nagging aside, I help Fran best by staying with her, listening to what she is saying, and then engaging with her calmly. I bring negative or skewed thinking to her attention, offering positive alternatives wherever possible, but I never dismiss or trivialise what she is going through. I do not tell her not to worry, or that everything will be all right. I have never promised to keep our conversations secret if I believed secrecy would endanger her. Fran knows I would do everything in my power to keep her alive, including bringing in other people and agencies if it became necessary.

But it would be wrong to imagine I never feel scared or get things wrong. In the summer of 2013, Fran was traveling in Europe with her parents. At the end of a particularly hard day, we shared a thirty minute telephone call, the longest we had managed in several days. The following is from my diary, written later that evening.

Fran was pretty drunk tonight and I got on her case about that without listening to her side of things. Towards the end of the call she suddenly became very weepy about how much she loves her Mom. I stayed with her until she was cried out, and then we parted so she could walk back to the hotel. I haven’t heard from her since. Given how tipsy and tearful she was, I could do with knowing she got back OK. I’ve texted her and left messages, but no reply yet.

What I failed to record in my diary, because I scarcely dared to, was that before bursting into tears Fran had said, “If I don’t make it back to the hotel, I need Mom to know how much I love her.” She had never spoken like that before, but I did not challenge her or ask what she meant, perhaps because I had already given her a rough time about her drinking. I said she could count on me to tell her mother if anything ever happened to her. That seemed to reassure her, but after we parted, I started to worry. Had she, even subconsciously, been hinting at something darker? I did not seriously believe she intended to kill herself, but it was a horrible feeling, which deepened as the hours passed. What if she had stepped into traffic, or thrown herself from a bridge? What if that conversation had been our last? What would her mother think of me? Her friends? Everyone would blame me for not keeping her safe.

I went to bed, but kept waking and checking my phone for messages. I finally heard from Fran around five thirty in the morning (six thirty for Fran). She had reached the hotel without incident, but had then been sick and still felt poorly. She had tried to contact me, but the hotel’s Internet service was down and she had only a poor phone signal. I mentioned our telephone conversation. She scarcely remembered it, but assured me she had definitely not felt suicidal.

The experience taught me to stay focused on what is happening whenever I am with Fran, and to bring any hint of dark or suicidal thinking into the open, rather than ignore or dismiss it. If your friend lives with suicidal thinking, or has made a suicide attempt in the past, I recommend educating yourself about a subject that can be difficult and painful — yet also extraordinary and courageous — to approach. We look at awareness and education later in this chapter. In an emergency, or if you are in any doubt as to your friend’s safety, do not hesitate to contact a doctor, hospital emergency department, or crisis helpline.

A Promise Is a Promise

Long before we met, Fran made a commitment to her psychiatrist that she would not kill herself without contacting him first. In her words, “It was a soul promise, made eye to eye.” She still considers it in force. It is arguable how much weight her word would carry in a time of crisis, but I knew from the beginning I would never ask her to make an equivalent commitment to me.

One thing, Fran ... and this is something I have wanted to say to you for a while. I will never ask you to give me your word not to kill yourself. That is a lie of course. In desperation I would beg you to promise. On my bleeding knees I would beg you. But if I cannot trust your word already given (and more importantly if you cannot), if you ever reach a place where that is not enough, what difference would a promise to me make?

I once told Fran that if she ever chose to leave, I would not hate her for it. That might seem at best naive, and at worst dangerously close to condoning her suicide, but my promise was instinctive and heart-felt. I also believe it to be protective. Fran later told me how important my words were to her. Paradoxically, they gave her strength to go on. Most people, she said, “try to lay guilt on you about how bad they’d feel if you killed yourself.” That argument would never persuade her, but dealing with it drained her of the energy she needed to fight to stay alive. My promise not to hate her finds an echo in the words a friend shared with us concerning her son’s attempt to end his life.

When I got to the hospital that night, I decided that if he died, today or any other day, it would be OK. But I needed to tell him that. So I told him, I cannot comprehend why he is the way he is, but, if he succeeds one day, I just want him to know. It will be OK, because alive or dead, happy or sad, no matter what ... I LOVE YOU.

Other Hands and Other Hearts

I am not the only person Fran has to turn to. In addition to a committed support team she has friends she trusts to help keep her safe. It is hard to overemphasise how important it is for your friend to have a trusted support network. In a moment of crisis, one person may be available to help when others are not. Early in our friendship, Fran was calling or e-mailing me many times a day. On one occasion I was busy at work and failed to respond. Thankfully, she called another friend who made time to talk with her. I contacted him the following day.

Fran told me you talked with her yesterday, and how important (literally life-savingly important) that was to her. How you know how to handle her like no one else can (I guess we each do in our different ways). I wasn’t available for her yesterday when she was trying to call me. I was at work and had to go Do Not Disturb. I didn’t know she wanted more than a chat. But it wasn’t me she needed, it was you.

I asked Fran what he had said to her. “He said, ‘You just need to stay alive until tomorrow, Fran. You can do it.’”


Excerpted from chapter 7, “The ‘S’ Word: Being There When Your Friend Is Suicidal,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.


Resources and Links

World Suicide Prevention Day 2021 (Rethink Mental Illness)

World Suicide Prevention Day 2021 (IASP)

Selected Articles for #WorldSuicidePreventionDay 2020

Online Suicide Awareness and Prevention Training and Podcasts

If You Need Help

Our resources page has links to suicide crisis lines and support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else. The IASP has links to international helpline and crisis centre organisations.


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