Written: July 17, 2019
Early one September evening I walked out of a psychiatric hospital onto the streets of Gloucester. I had no idea where I was going or where I wanted to be – I simply knew that I was not going home.
I had been admitted to the hospital the previous week because of suicide risk but discharged myself that evening because I had felt distressed in there. Staff agreed that I could self-discharge and I walked out, leaving almost all my belongings in there.
As it got late, people started to notice that I was a lone female on the city centre streets. The first people who approached me to show concern were two homeless men. They had been selling the Big Issue earlier that evening. “It’s not safe for a woman to be out on the streets at night” they said.
They gave me details of a homeless hostel and said that if I was going to stay out all night that I should sleep at a safer place under the bridge, where they would be around to check on me. I was very grateful but told them I would be okay. “You’ll freeze out here overnight” they said, offering me a blanket. They were genuinely worried for me.
A Polish man stopped to talk to me and showed similar concerns. I said I would be fine but he replied: “You can stay with us. Let me phone my wife”. After a brief phone conversation, we headed for his home. His wife welcomed me, made me hot chocolate and toast, and showed me the room where I could stay. I was overwhelmed by their kindness but felt I couldn’t impose in that way.
I returned to the streets and the two homeless men told me that a man had been driving around looking for me because he had become concerned after talking to me for just a few minutes. All this was astonishing to me.
I had not told anyone that I had just left psychiatric hospital, that I was feeling suicidal, and that I had what I needed to end my life in my bag. I didn’t express any distress at all. They were simply responding instinctively, with concern, to a person who seemed vulnerable.
The kindness and care which they showed me had a very powerful effect. I had expected to go unnoticed on the streets. The fact that total strangers cared, gave their time and went out of their way to help was a powerful reminder of the goodness, selflessness and wonderful generosity of spirit within people. When you are depressed you are focused on the negative aspects of life – it’s part of the illness. The people I met on the streets showed me that this was not the bleak, uncaring world that I had thought it to be, earlier that evening.
You may never know that a person you encounter is feeling suicidal. They may simply appear vulnerable in some way. I now run a Suicide Crisis Centre and there are times when I encounter individuals – often on my way home from work – who appear vulnerable or in distress. A very high percentage have later disclosed to me that they are having suicidal thoughts or that they have done in the recent past, once they know what my job is.
If a person is obviously distressed and crying, it does seem that fewer people are likely to approach them. Perhaps people aren’t quite sure how best to do it and fear they won’t know what to say or that they will say something that might be unhelpful. Perhaps they fear that the person will respond negatively or unpredictably. They may even fear that this could be some kind of trap to draw people in, resulting in their becoming a victim of crime. We do have to be vigilant, and weigh up potential risks.
However, I know from experience what a difference it makes if a stranger stops and simply asks: “Is there anything I can do to help?” It means a great deal that someone has taken the time to stop, and care.
In the period leading up to my admission to psychiatric hospital, I had become profoundly depressed. I remember walking out of the bank one day and breaking down in tears in the middle of a crowded High Street. I felt mortified at first. I felt exposed and instinctively covered my face with my hands. This was a very public display of distress, something I would never wish to happen. I cried silently into my hands for around ten minutes. I could hear large numbers of people walking by. No one stopped. No one asked if I was okay. I was having strong suicidal thoughts at the time.
All of us may of course at some point in our life encounter a stranger who is more obviously at risk of suicide. If you haven’t been trained in how to help someone who’s at imminent risk of suicide, would you try to help them?
When I did a suicide intervention skills training course in 2013, the trainer told us that evidence showed that when a person was obviously at the point of suicide (at a location where they could have ended their life), the majority of people drove by without stopping. They may be unsure how to help, or they fear saying or doing “the wrong thing”.
The training course showed us how to approach and talk to someone who is at a location where they could, within seconds, end their life.
I’m a passionate advocate of this kind of training being available free of charge to members of the public. In some areas, county councils are already providing this training for local organisations. I hope it will be extended to include members of the public.
We all have the potential to help save a life.
By Joy Hibbins: also published in HuffPost UK: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/joy-hibbins/suicide-we-can-all-help-s_b_17036980.html
Sources of support: UK : The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Gloucestershire, the Suicide Crisis Centre provides face to face support: http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk