18 May 2020

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 18-24 May. This year's theme is kindness - a word in the spotlight like never before during the Coronavirus pandemic. In this news item, ELFT's Suicide Prevention lead, Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Chloe Beale, talks about how kindness can utterly change a situation when someone is feeling suicidal and the importance of healthcare staff responding with kindness to the person in front of them: 

As suicide prevention lead at ELFT, my wish is to change the conversation about suicide, and to challenge the culture in mental health services that sometimes puts perception of risk before compassion and human instinct.

You don’t have to look far to find a story of someone who has felt suicidal but found their path changed by an act of kindness. If you do a Google search you will find lots of examples: you may have one of your own. I tend to find there is a common theme when people talk about what really helped them in those darkest of moments, and that is compassion and empathy, being seen and heard. Something strikingly absent from accounts of coming back from the brink of suicide is “someone did a really good risk assessment,” or “I was asked if my thoughts were fleeting or if I had any plans or intent.” We spend so much time in mental health talking and thinking about ‘risk’ that sometimes we forget to see the person in front of us. I am sure that most of us went into our careers driven by care and compassion and a desire to help, but sometimes we can lose sight of the basics when we get tired and stressed and feel the weight of so much expectation. We worry about risk, we worry about blame, we worry about missing something or getting it wrong, and this sometimes means our kindness and compassion gets eroded over time. Our assessments can become about our own fear and anxiety, so that instead of asking what we can do to help, we ask “how can you reassure me?” I think it’s better to acknowledge this than pretend it doesn’t happen. We get bogged down in ‘risk assessment’ and, in focusing on asking questions to try and quantify how likely someone is to end their lives, we forget to just be there, just listen, be kind. The open-hearted approach that draws a stranger to talk to a distressed person on a bridge, the instinct that makes us ask a friend what’s wrong: that is what we need to bring to work. The starting point should not be a checklist in our head of questions we are compelled to ask, but an instinct to reach out as one human being to another.