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How to Help People

And how to help society with it

By Jamie JacksonPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 6 min read
Top Story - October 2021
How to Help People
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

My friend’s mother committed suicide. I knew her well. I was always staying over at the family home when young, it was a beautiful, double-fronted property on a hilltop overlooking the town.

I had fond memories of my time there and as a grown man I’d take the long route home so I could drive past the house. More than once I sat outside and drank in the nostalgia.

I knew his mother was in there, alone. My friend and his brothers were adults and had flown the nest, and she had got divorced a few years prior and was an older lady living by herself.

Several times I considered knocking on her door to say hello, but it felt weird and intrusive so I didn’t bother. I kept my distance and drove off.

When I heard the news of her passing, I felt terrible guilt for not acting on my impulses and checking in. She suffered from anxiety and depression for many years and I wondered if knocking on the door to say hello at the right time could have made a difference.

I wish I had. But I didn’t.

The young man and the train

On Boxing Day I interrupted a 25-year-old man trying to kill himself.

I was on a dog walk and as I approached the level crossing of the train tracks I saw a car parked up by the gate. The crossing alarm sounded signifying a train was coming, and he got out of the car and stood on the tracks. Then, as I called out to my dog, he saw me and my wife and got back in his car.

I knew something was wrong. As we walked passed I told my wife to go on and knocked on his window to ask if he was OK. I was thinking once more of my friend's mother.

He got out and asked for a cigarette. I didn’t have one. I asked again “Are you OK?”

He paused then replied, “I nearly did something stupid.”

Immediately a tornado of emotion pushed up from my stomach. My uncle killed himself by standing in front of a train when I was 14 and it destroyed my father. I witnessed the raw fallout of such a brutal act.

I told him he couldn't do something like this. I begged him not to. We chatted for a while across the roof of his car and then, about 10 minutes in, he politely wound up the conversation as if we were having a chat over a wedding buffet or in line at the supermarket.

But I didn’t leave.

I thought about my friend’s mother. I thought about my uncle and my father. In front of me was a broken young man, mid-20’s, angry, confused and mentally exhausted.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told him.

He seemed relieved. The responsibility to deal with the situation had been taken off of his shoulders. He relaxed. I think. I can’t be sure. My mind was going 100 miles per hour, every word I spoke I wondered if I was making things better or worse.

I was desperate to help.

It feels embarrassing to admit I told him “I want to say I love you”, because right then I did. I saw his whole soul, he was the most vulnerable human I’ve ever met, his guard down, stripped bare, his armour gone. It was a remarkable and humbling site. He was a precious and delicate man who I wanted to cradle in my arms. I felt pure love for this human being. It was overwhelming.

I too saw myself in his expressions, his pain, his awkward gait and drooping shoulders. He was broken, as I had been at a similar age when I was self-harming, drinking heavily, when I was confused and angry and hated myself.

I assured him I understood, that life gets better, that things change, it’s just difficult to believe when you’re at rock bottom.

I told him suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, only because I heard someone else say it. I’d always assumed my years of therapy and self-help would have me prepared and ready to save him with simple sentences, like a magician’s sleight of hand, but I was emotional and afraid, afraid I’d break this fragile man with clumsy words.

The police arrived after about 40 minutes of conversation. He told me he called them (and the Samaritans) telling them what he was about to do just before I turned up. He confessed he tried twice before that morning but dog walkers kept interrupting him. He didn’t want anyone to witness it and be traumatised.

The police separated us and we chatted, exchanged details in a surreal moment of practical administration. When we regrouped he told them “I would have done it if it wasn’t for this man.”

I don’t say this to boast, or to seem heroic, but to perhaps comfort myself that I didn’t compound his angst. I was so desperate to help.

He said, “I wish everyone was as nice as you.”

I told him they were.

Here's the thing, everyone is nice, but they’re nervous about talking to strangers, they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable or an inconvenience so they keep to themselves, as I did with my best friend’s mother. I could have knocked on her door. I could have given her my time. But I didn’t.

I read somewhere love is spelt T-I-M-E.

I don’t think anything could be truer. People just want to be heard, acknowledged, actually listened to. They just want a slice of your time, a moment of attention to know they matter, to feel connected.

I gave him my number and asked him to call me as the police were arranging for him to be taken away for support, to a facility, a hospital, somewhere.

He hasn’t called. I wish I took his number, but guess I didn’t want to impose.

Funny isn’t it, after everything I still recoiled, I didn’t want to intrude, I didn’t want to call him out the blue and be seen as a nuisance.

So here's how to help people with mental illness

Or help people... at all. From that profound experience, I’ve decided to reach out to people more.

I’m going to love you whether you like it or not.

Recently, a casual friend went through a (very unjust) public shaming and I reached out to see if he was OK. I don’t know him well, I could have left it and no one would have judged me, but I sent him a few messages and he confessed he was in bits, but recovering. I know my message helped. Not because I specifically am important but because everyone is important. Everyone’s time is a gift to be given out as we each see fit.

So how do you truly help others? Your time. Your attention. A simple reaching out. It’s more potent and powerful than we can imagine.

This isn’t a lecture or condescending advice – I’m currently sitting on a phone call to another casual friend who had a breakdown and I'm nervous to talk. We’ve texted and I promised to call. I will, but I haven’t yet.

Maybe it’s selfishness, maybe it’s fear, but we all feel resistance to reaching out.

Perhaps this is the way we're wired. As The Smiths sang:

“It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind.”

Truly helping someone is parking your own shit to take on someone else’s. Even for a day, or an hour. It’s that simple. And that difficult.

By doing so, you’re bringing light into the world and light into someone else’s life, and that could, after all, save their life.


A version of this article was originally published on


About the Creator

Jamie Jackson

Between two skies and towards the night.

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