Fears that their approach would not be welcomed, that they might make the situation worse, or simply not know what to say, were all cited as reasons for holding back.
However, a simple casual conversation can make a big difference to someone struggling with dark thoughts, and potentially even help save their life.
“I had some really dark days when I thought I was worthless, but I got through it by talking to people,” says the host and mental health attorney Gail Porter, who is supporting the latest phase of the Samaritans Small Talk Saves Lives campaign. “Be kind, listen to each other, talk to each other.”
The campaign is run in partnership with Network Rail and British Transportation Police. Shona Gibbs, Acting Head of Rail at Samaritans, says their research involved asking people who were experiencing suicidal thoughts about what helped them when they were approached by concerned strangers.
Verbal interventions – including small talk and active listening – have been found to be the most helpful things a person can do to help.
“The most important thing is to affect your gut,” says Gibbs. “If something doesn’t feel right, trust yourself in that moment and check with the person you’re worried about.”
Porter agrees, saying: “People worry too much about what people might think. You shouldn’t worry, you just have to think: This person doesn’t look happy, I’m just going to say something real quick – if they don’t want to talk to me , that’s okay, but at least I tried.”
Scottish television personality and former model who presented shows including The Big Breakfast, Top Of The Pops and TFI Friday in the nineties and early noughties, has always been candid about her dark times, including her sudden hair loss due to alopecia 2005, facing divorce, bankruptcy and homelessness after her work began to dry up, as well as the death of her mom in 2009. Porter was once separated under the Mental Health Act.
“I lost my hair, I lost my mom, I lost my house, I was broke, I was homeless, and I was just like, ‘God, it can’t get any worse, can it?'” Porter, 51, recalled.
“People can have very dark thoughts and that’s why we need to talk to each other.”
Thankfully, she is now feeling great and much stronger, but is determined to use her own experience to help others going through their darkest times.
Porter turned to the Samaritans at her lowest point and found talking to the charity’s volunteers was a “great release” that helped her turn the corner.
“I work with The Samaritans because they’ve seen me go through highs and lows and come back up again,” she explains.
“I’ve been very open about it, I’m not embarrassed, I’m not ashamed. This is what happened, it was a bit silly and a bit sad, but I’m still standing and I’m still smiling. And if I can do it, anyone can.
“People can have very dark thoughts and that’s why we need to talk to each other. A lot of people are worried about saying anything, but it’s very quick – you just come up and say, ‘Are you OK?’ And if they say yes, then good,” she adds, emphasizing the pre-election message.
“I do it all the time,” Porter says. “I live in London and a lot of people say ‘I’m fine’ or just ignore you and walk away, but a lot of people say they’re fine or just say thanks for what you said.”
She herself was also the height of such kindness and was incredibly grateful for it. “One day I was a little teary on the subway,” Porter recalls, “and someone came up to me and gave me a bag of tissues. He just shoved it into my hand. He didn’t say anything, just tapped me on the arm and sat down again.
“It meant a lot to me. I didn’t want anyone to suffer because I was sad, but someone did a tiny thing that made me feel better.
“Even just a smile on the phone when someone looks sad can help. I’ve seen people there on the phone and it looks like they’re arguing and crying and I just smile and give them a nod and I get a smile and a nod back and sometimes that’s all people need.
“It’s nice to talk, but if you don’t feel like someone wants to talk, just smile. Acknowledge each other. We’re all in this together, we’re all going to have bad days and good days, but it’s nice to know that people are smiling or listening and asking if you’re okay.”
Porter, whose daughter Honey is now 20, says she’s in a good place now.
“I’m doing great now, I’m really good – my daughter is doing great, I’m doing a lot of really good gigs around the country and I’m doing a little stand-up show at the Edinburgh Festival. I talk to so many people now because when I was going through hard times I wouldn’t pick up the phone from my friends because I didn’t want to burden them.
“That’s why this company is so important to me. I didn’t tell anyone what was going on for so long and I think it got worse and worse and worse because I didn’t ask for help .. I didn’t ask for someone to give me a hug or just listen a little bit.’
Gail Porter is helping Samaritans remind people that we can all be lifesavers by simply starting a conversation as part of Samaritans’ Small Talk Saves Lives campaign (samaritans.org).