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The Student Insider

Suicide prevention: dispelling common myths about suicide


Written by
Georgina Jeronymides-Norie

One of the first steps to suicide prevention is becoming more informed on the topic. This article dispels common misconceptions surrounding suicide, updating untrue narratives with facts, and offering advice for supporting those experiencing thoughts of suicide.  (Please take care and consider whether you feel able to read this article at present.)

Silhouette of a man with his hands around a setting sun

Speaking openly about suicide makes it easier for those experiencing thoughts of suicide to reach out for help, and educates others on what to do if they suspect someone may be vulnerable to suicide, giving people the confidence and knowledge of how to be a beacon of light to those in pain.

The University of London recognises the role of education in helping to keep students safer from suicide. As suicide is still highly stigmatised, we’re going to dispel five common myths surrounding it, share some lesser-known truths, and offer some advice on supporting others. Please bear in mind that this article serves as an opening to an emotional, complex and nuanced topic, and professional advice should always be sought.  

Before we talk through common myths, facts and advice, it’s important to ensure that the language we’re using is up-to-date. The phrase ‘commit suicide’ is being phased out; this language is reflective of when suicide was a crime, which it hasn’t been in the UK since 1961. Although it is still criminalised in some countries, the University of London, in line with leading suicide prevention organisations, uses non-judgemental language such as ‘died by suicide’. 

1) Myth:

Talking about suicide is dangerous as people may be influenced to take their lives. 

  • Fact:

Talking about suicide does not increase the chances of someone attempting suicide. Instead, it destigmatises suicide and encourages people to speak up if that is how they are feeling, which allows others to help to keep them safe. It is important, however, not to share methods of suicide publicly or thoughtlessly, as this level of detail may influence someone experiencing suicide thoughts.  

  • Advice:

If someone is distressed and using phrases such as 'I don't want to be here anymore', it may feel like a leap to then ask if they are having thoughts of suicide, but be reassured that while it may not feel like a comfortable question to ask, it is helpful for both you and the person you are supporting. By directly asking 'are you experiencing thoughts of suicide?' you instantly break the taboo and give the other person an opportunity to clarify how they are feeling. If they say 'yes', then you know that you need to assist them to find professional help.  

2) Myth:

People who express suicidal thoughts are doing it for attention.  

  • Fact:

Suicidal thoughts are common and should always be taken seriously. Even if someone does not have a plan to end their life, if they are having and expressing suicidal thoughts, they could be at risk of suicide. 

  • Advice:

If someone expresses thoughts of suicide to you, even if you are not a mental health professional, you can still be a beacon of light for them. This doesn't mean having all the answers; your role is to stay with them, whether that is in person, online or over the phone, in order to help keep the person safe until the appropriate support is available. This may mean looking up crisis support together or agreeing on someone trusted, such as a parent, that you can tell together. The person may ask you not to tell anyone, but don't agree to this, instead you can say, 'I can't promise that I won't tell anyone because it's important to me that we keep you safe for now.' 

If you are experiencing suicide thoughts yourself, tell someone how you're feeling or search for a crisis support line. If you are a University of London student, visit this page to find out the support available to you.

3) Myth:

There's no way to tell if someone is feeling suicidal.  

  • Fact:

Many suicides are preceded by warning signs, whether verbal or behavioural. Young people, in particular, often tell their peers of their thoughts and plans. Suicide is a difficult thing to talk about and we are therefore committed to training staff in identifying and responding to suicide risk.  

  • Advice:

There's a lot to be said for everyday kindness. Perhaps you have noticed that a friend has withdrawn recently, is quieter or seems to regularly be in a low mood - take some time to ask them, in private, how they are. Conversely, maybe you know someone who was recently experiencing thoughts of suicide or appeared depressed but has suddenly and unexpectedly 'cheered up' - this could be a sign that they feel resolved in their decision to take their life, so enquiring about this may open up a conversation. You could say 'I've noticed your mood seems to have changed significantly from a few days ago, can you tell me more about how you're feeling now?' 

4) Myth: 

People who are feeling suicidal can’t be helped and if someone is suicidal, it means they want to die.  

  • Fact:

Most people with suicide thoughts and behaviours do not actually want to die. But they do not want to live the life they currently have; they do change their minds and may want to be saved. Often, feeling actively suicidal is temporary, even if someone has been feeling low, anxious, or struggling to cope for an extended period of time. This is why getting the right kind of support at the right time is so important. 

Lack of understanding and stigma around suicide and mental illness can be a barrier to seeking and offering help and we are therefore committed to tackling this through training and educating our students and staff.  Suicide prevention is everybody’s business, and we are committed to a whole-university approach that facilitates wide engagement and involvement of students and staff in keeping  students safer from suicide. 

  • Advice:

The understanding that people often want change in their lives rather than wanting their life to end is key and is what makes most suicides preventable! Have you ever been in a situation and thought, 'I wish this wasn't happening to me, I wish it would end', and then the event passes and that feeling goes with it? The same principle applies to many people, situations, thoughts, and feelings. Being able to see the light, hold hope and believe in the ability of others to heal from their current struggles is incredibly valuable. As we've said before, you can help them access professional support and be a step closer to keeping them safe in the long-term.  

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, perhaps this can offer some comfort to you too; it is possible for circumstances to change in a way that makes life feel livable again.  

5) Myth: 

Suicidal ideation is more common in women.  

  • Fact:

Any one of us can experience thoughts of suicide but some groups are more likely to than the general population. Suicide is more common among, and the biggest killer of young men every year, which may be due to societal expectations that have made it less permissible for men to express when they are struggling and to seek help. Other high-risk groups include the LGBTQIA+ community and people living with pre-existing mental ill-health diagnoses. 

  • Advice:

Being aware that there are groups at higher risk of suicide can encourage you to compassionately communicate with someone you feel concerned about or pick up signs that someone may not be telling you the whole truth about how they're feeling. You may consider repeating questions or being curious and asking thoughtful follow-up questions to vague answers. 

Wellbeing support available to you

If you have been affected by suicide in any way, you are not alone and there is support available to you. Go to the Support and wellbeing page of our website to see where you can get help through the University. Distance and flexible learning students can download the mental health peer support service, TalkCampus, which has 24/7 integrated crisis support, as well as a wealth of wellbeing resources, all of which can be found on the Wellbeing tab on your Student Portal. We encourage you to seek professional medical support if your symptoms persist.

Further reading