Wendy Woolfson


So, this question came up recently; is suicide worse than cancer? Is it any different to tell someone you want to kill yourself as it is to be diagnosed with cancer? The question was asked from the perspective of telling someone you are suicidal or that you have cancer: two very different but equally life-threatening things that have the potential for not being properly listened or responded to. When I first heard I had cancer, suicidal thoughts entered my head but not the ones I expected; I found that after years of not wanting to live, that I actually did, and suicide was furthest from my mind but I did ask myself if I wanted to get it over with and go ahead and die?

If you tell someone you have cancer they will usually have a compassionate and caring perspective. They will be concerned and ask about the diagnosis and the prognosis. They ask how you’re coping and what you might need. They offer support and bring food round to the house, offer to give you lifts to appointments and come and do your dishes. There’s more information in the public domain about cancer than there is about suicide, so that makes it easier to think about what your response might be.

But if you tell the same people that you feel suicidal the response could be, and let’s be honest, usually is, very different. They freeze and don’t know what to do. It’s such a difficult subject and for the most part, it’s taboo. That’s understandable, and there’s no judgement coming from me but what I can do is offer some options for appropriate responses here. This is not complete and there’s much more information out there than I can discuss here if you need it. I’ve put some links below.

Suicide is a difficult word to hear and carries so much weight. Some of you know someone who has died by suicide and it doesn’t make it any easier to hear. Maybe it makes it worse because you know how hard it is and what it does to a family and friends. What on earth do you say to someone who tells you they feel like killing themselves?

There is help out there, for people who feel that killing themselves is the only option. It’s a terrible thing to feel that dying by suicide is the only option for all the pain you’re feeling. I’ve been there, and it’s not easy. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones because I escaped it. I think I managed to evade completing suicide because of all the training I’ve done in social care in understanding and supporting suicide, such as courses like ASIST and safeTALK. I’ve also completed counselling and therapy courses and diplomas for my own personal development. All of those courses built my understanding of our human needs and condition and led me to being able to access therapy in the end, which is the thing that really saved me, just in time. I can make some suggestions here but it’s important to do your own research and listen to others as well.

The key thing when someone tells you they feel suicidal is to be honest in your response and to stay focused on them. This will make them feel seen and heard because they can hear that someone has had an honest response to their feelings and most importantly they’ve not balked at them or turned away. You’re allowed to tell them that it’s hard to hear and how sad it makes you feel, as long as you’re not detracting from their valid emotions and end up talking about yourself more than them. You can also tell them that you don’t know what to say but that you’re here to listen and help in any way you can.

You can ask them if they have made plans for killing themselves and you can tell them that you’ll make sure they have a safety plan and you will not leave them until they feel safe. Then you follow through. Find out who they trust that they can contact to talk to. Take them to a place where they feel comfortable and safe. You could go somewhere for a cup of tea and a talk before taking them to wherever they will feel safe for the rest of the day and night. There are helplines at the end of this post they can contact for professionals to talk to. Ensure they have a phone number of someone they will arrange to call. Check they have enough charge or credit on their phone. Give them the helpline numbers and put the numbers in their phone.

Do not over commit yourself to helping. It can be hard on you to support someone feeling this way so put those numbers to use for yourself as well and ensure you have someone to talk to about the experience.

It’s an awful position to be in to feel that way. I can only talk about my own experience of it but I’m sure it will be similar to others. I can remember at the time feeling so incredibly distant from everyone I loved. I felt like I was on the outside looking in, as though an invisible barrier was around me and I couldn’t reach out to them. I wanted to ask for help but I felt stymied, stifled, suffocated. I couldn’t open my mouth to voice the words I wanted to say. It seemed like everyone else was living their best life and I wasn’t. It felt like I was drifting into an abyss and I couldn’t get out. Each day I was sinking in deeper and there was no way of stopping it. The distance became greater from my loved ones. I was harming myself in different ways including alcohol and cutting myself. It felt like my only option to let off some of the pressure that kept building up. I did have one or two people I could talk to before I began to access therapy, and that did help but it wasn’t enough. I knew I needed professional help but I was so scared of asking for it because I knew what it would mean. It meant I would have to take the lid off what was causing this problem. I knew what the problem was, or what the problems were, I should say. There were so many, too many. It was a frightening thought to open it all up. Once it’s open it’s laid bare and there’s no going back. God help me for opening that can of worms, what if it all went to hell? What if once I start talking about it I can’t stop? What if it makes it worse? What if there’s not enough time? What if the therapist is rubbish? What if I don’t know what to say and I clam up and it’s all a waste of time? Why not just kill myself and get it over with, that will be much easier? No-one will miss me anyway. So many questions with no apparent answers.

I would look at my husband laughing and playing with our young children and I felt so completely isolated and alone and on the outside, so distant. A total outsider. It seemed I had no outlet for my emotions or to voice my problems. I had no self-esteem or sense of self-worth. I didn’t care about my body or what I needed. I managed to scrape through each day, barely looking after myself and my family. It was incredibly hard just getting through the day.

No-one would have known to look at me that I was feeling that way. It’s surprising how many people feel suicidal but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. There are suicide signals people put out that you can look out for; repeatedly saying things like, “I just can’t be bothered living with all this anymore.” or “I’ve been having a bit of a wobble lately”, “Life feels too difficult to deal with these days,” “I don’t want to deal with all this anymore.”  You can ask them, “Have you had thoughts about killing yourself recently?” When someone asks you that, it doesn’t put the thought of killing yourself into your head, in fact, it is a great relief because someone has voiced what you’re feeling and taken the stigma away from it. They have listened and understood something about how you’re feeling, and it provides a space to open up and talk.

Having a cancer diagnosis is hard and at times it can feel like a death sentence, and right now, it’s a struggle as symptoms seem to be getting worse before they get better but I’m grateful that I no longer have to deal with the suicidal thoughts that used to go around my head.

I saw my psychologist this week and she explained that it was normal for people with diagnoses like mine to have suicidal thoughts. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a tough week, and it’s entered my head but not in any real way, I’m not making plans and I don’t want to die but I can see what she means, it’s about ending suffering and how hard it is.

In many ways suicidal thoughts were worse than my cancer diagnosis. With cancer I know where I stand and I feel relatively calm and focused. I know what I need to do to help myself and I have a support network. When I was suicidal I had none of that. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone when you think they may be on the verge of killing themselves. It’s always ok to ask, and you could end up saving their life.

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