Milena Heinsch, University of Newcastle; Dara Sampson, University of Newcastle, and Frances Kay-Lambkin, University of Newcastle
We’ve now been social distancing for several weeks. While these measures have allowed us to slow the spread of COVID-19, they’ve also upended our day-to-day lives.
If you’ve found yourself experiencing feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, boredom, anger, frustration or irritability, you’re not alone.
Older adults, health-care workers, people with pre-existing mental health conditions and people experiencing financial pressure could be particularly vulnerable to psychological distress at this time.
When feelings of psychological distress increase, suicidal thoughts and behaviours may also increase.
So how do we know when to be worried about someone we love, and how can we support them from afar?
Read more: Can’t sleep and feeling anxious about coronavirus? You’re not alone
Recognising the signs
During COVID-19, we may all be feeling more stressed than usual. That’s why we need to stay connected with each other online, on the phone and via text messages.
But it’s important we’re attuned to whether this extra stress and uncertainty is developing into something more for any of the people we care about.
Some warning signs for suicide might be easier to recognise when you can see a person’s facial expressions and gestures. But there are cues you can pick up on during text, phone or online communication.
Social withdrawal can indicate a person is at greater risk. Perhaps a friend or relative is increasingly difficult to contact via phone or text, disappears from social media or starts saying they just want to be alone.
A persistent drop in mood might be revealed on the phone by a flat tone of voice, talking less than usual or more slowly, and by shorter text messages or none at all.
Some people might say things like “you’d be better off without me” or “there’s nothing to live for”, which suggest they can’t see a way out of their situation and may be thinking about suicide.
If you’re worried someone you know might be suicidal, reaching out and having a conversation could save their life.
Talking on the phone or online
Choose a time and place where you can talk openly and without getting interrupted. This might be challenging when whole families are at home together for extended periods. But these can be sensitive and confronting conversations and it’s important to protect the person, as well as people in your family or household.
You could start the conversation by asking your friend or loved one how they are. You might also let them know you’ve noticed a change in them: “you don’t seem yourself”.
Starting the conversation may look different if you’re online. Perhaps someone has posted a comment or image on social media that seems unusual for them, or which makes it seem like they’re thinking about suicide. If so, contact them directly by sending a private message. It’s OK to talk online, just not in a public forum.
Read more: Is your mental health deteriorating during the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s what to look out for
Once you’ve started the conversation, ask directly about suicidal thoughts and intentions (for example, “are you thinking about suicide?”).
And be prepared they may answer “yes”. Then you just have to listen with supportive statements. Say things like “that sounds really tough” rather than “don’t be silly”.
Being at a distance can be an advantage
You might feel worried about having a difficult conversation on the phone or online, but this style of communication actually has some benefits.
People may feel more comfortable revealing suicidal thoughts, without fear of stigma, when communication isn’t face-to-face. And sometimes people find it easier to communicate via emoji, GIFs or images rather than having to find the words to express how they’re feeling.
Read more: Social distancing can make you lonely. Here’s how to stay connected when you’re in lockdown
Further, listening on the phone or via messaging gives us time to think about how to best respond, and to let our initial reactions pass.
This is important because negative reactions, like criticising or dismissing someone’s feelings, may make the person less likely to seek help and increase their thoughts of suicide.
Encourage them to get help
If you’re worried about someone and you think they’re at risk of suicide, offering help is important. Our research with people who had previously attempted suicide found although participants wouldn’t necessarily seek help, many said they would accept it if it were offered.
While talking with the person you’re worried about is an important first step, you may be able to guide them towards professional help. For example, they may want help to make an appointment with a GP or counsellor, or to call a crisis line.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Lauren Rogers, a research assistant at the University of Newcastle, contributed to this article.
Milena Heinsch, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Brain and Mental Health, University of Newcastle; Dara Sampson, Academic Research Manager, University of Newcastle, and Frances Kay-Lambkin, Professor, University of Newcastle