September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day and there is no doubt that 2020 has been an incredibly testing year for many people. It has been a year that has seen an unprecedented increase in anxiety and stress levels worldwide due to the impact of the pandemic.

Spotting the signs that a friend or family member is having troubling thoughts is of course essential in order to provide the support they need. We asked Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health for Bupa UK to explain how to tell if a loved one is having suicidal thoughts and how to manage your own mental health.

Signs that a loved one or friend may be having suicidal thoughts

If you have a friend who’s feeling suicidal or troubled, they may express behaviours or desires that are indicative of their struggles. Spotting these behaviours and helping them to take action, where appropriate, can make a real difference to a person’s outlook and can even help grow your relationship with them. The following are classed as high-risk warning signs:

• Your friend or loved one has made threats to hurt or kill themselves

• They have acquired equipment or means that could help make their suicide possible, for example, they may have stockpiled medicines.

• Death, dying and suicide is something that they’ve been writing or speaking about.

Other contributing warning signs to look out for:

Their behaviour has become riskier: they may have started to act more recklessly; acting without thinking of consequences. For example, they may have started to abuse drugs or alcohol more than what’s usual for them. They have started to act without a sense of purpose. For example, they may be neglecting their appearance; not washing regularly and not worry about how they dress.

How you can help

Find support

If your friend or loved one is displaying high-risk warning signs, this means they might going through severe psychological and emotional distress and they need to speak to their nearest crisis resolution team (CRT) as soon as possible. CRTs are comprised of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses trained to work with people just like your loved one. Your nearest CRT team’s details can be found at your local accident and emergency department. Your friend may already be clinically diagnosed with a mental health condition – if this is the case, contact their care team, or the centre where they’re being treated.

Be there for your loved one

There may be a wait between your loved one seeking help and receiving treatment. Whilst they’re waiting, do what you can to help keep them as safe as possible and remove any element of risk from their immediate environment. If there’s anything like medication, knives, sharp objects and potentially harmful household chemicals (e.g. bleach) keep these items out of their way.

Crucially, if you think there’s any chance that your loved one may die by suicide before they’re able to get the professional help that’s right for them, call 999 to ask for an ambulance.

Listen to how they’re feeling

It’s important to make sure that you’re in regular contact with a friend displaying any suicidal signs – just talking to them about how they’re feeling may help. Plus, if they’re avoiding contact with their close friends, reaching out to them, asking how they truly feel and listening to their responses can help to make a big difference now and in the longer term. Remember that opening up like this can take time, but this regular contact is a clear sign to show them that you care for them and that they’re important to you.

Remember, if your loved one is already receiving treatment with a care team, you can share any concerns with one of their representatives or your GP and they can offer further assistance.

Lastly, supporting a person who’s struggling mentally can take its toll on your own mental health. Try to take some time out for yourself, where you can, and share how you’ve been affected with a trusted support network.

Things you can do to boost your own mental health and wellbeing

Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. And the good news is that there’s plenty of things you can do to look after both sides of your wellbeing.

Regular exercise

Exercise is great for a mental health boost; it triggers feel-good chemicals in your brain like dopamine and serotonin that can help to alleviate stress and anxiety. Additionally, exercise can help to prevent depression. Aim to do at least thirty minutes of exercise, five times a week to get a mood boost and your fitness fix.

A good sleep

Anyone who’s had a bad night’s sleep will know that it can affect your mood the next day; that’s because sleep is crucial to maintain good mental health. Sustained periods of bad sleep can affect both your mental and physical health, potentially leading to depression, anxiety, stress, heart disease and diabetes.

If you’re struggling to sleep, think about your daytime habits and night-time routine – can you improve them in any way to help your sleeping patterns? It can be helpful to reduce caffeine, alcohol and nicotine intake – these stimulants can affect your ability to sleep well. Think about making your environment more sleep-friendly too: get some black-out curtains, keep away from light-emitting tech devices two hours before bed and try having a warm bath or reading a light book.

Food for thought

If you’re feeling down, it might be tempting to tuck into something that feels like a comforting treat – something sugary or your favourite alcoholic tipple. Or perhaps a bad mood swings you in the opposite direction, where you don’t want to eat or drink anything at all. A poor diet can have a negative influence on your mood and can even increase your chance of developing some certain mental health problems, so it’s important to get the balance right. Make sure you’re eating and drinking good things regularly – that means lots of water, fruit, vegetables (aim for your five-a-day) and enough protein and fatty acids in your diet.

Share a problem

We all have days where we feel like the world isn’t on our side. Connecting with your friends and family, even if you can’t see them in person, can help you to make sense of your feelings and gain perspective. If you find that you can’t speak to someone you know about your feelings, there are lots of outlets to help share your thoughts: The Samaritans can support you if you’re struggling with your mental wellbeing, Relate can help if you are having relationship problems and the Citizen’s Advice can help and support with problems around domestic abuse

Be mindful

If something’s making you feel stressed or unsettled, sometimes it can feel difficult to focus on anything else. However, changing up your focus with mindfulness and taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breathing and the present can be beneficial; helping you to pause and pay attention to the world around you. Bupa has some free mindfulness podcasts that you can access.

More information

For more information on Bupa, visit the website.