A stranger’s small talk saved my life, it could help others feeling hopeless

When I was 19 years old, I was struggling to cope. My experience of university wasn’t what I thought it’d be.

On paper, it’s painted as such an exciting prospect – gaining your independence, meeting new people and getting you on track for your future.

For many, it is, but it may also be the first time you’ve lived by yourself, potentially far away from your support network. Having grown up in Belgium, going to university in the UK felt like I was parachuted into an environment I was unfamiliar with, making me feel lost and isolated.

Although I was struggling, I felt unable to share how I was feeling with anyone and didn’t know where I could turn to for support. Everyone around me seemed to be coping well. Because no one else was talking about finding things tough, I thought it was just me and that made it hard to open up to anyone about what I was going through.

Things were getting harder and, one day, I was on my way back to campus from reading week when I had a sudden thought that ending my life would be a way out.

I was in my own world when a lady standing nearby came up to me and said: ‘Are you waiting for a train? Are you OK?’

Apart from probably looking vacant and concerned, there was nothing hugely out of the ordinary about me standing there but she clearly had a sense that something was wrong.

It instantly snapped me out of the possibility of harming myself in that moment.

Although I didn’t say much back to her, the simplicity of a stranger striking up a little conversation with me was all it took to interrupt my suicidal thoughts, which I now know are temporary – even if, at the time, it didn’t feel that way. This exchange and the concern this lady showed for me helped me re-centre and I got the next train back to university.

Her making small talk with me was a wake-up call and made me realise it’s OK to reach out for help when you need it. I spoke to my university and they provided me with a mentor to help with my workload. I also shared how I was feeling with my loved ones – that made a big difference.

By seeking help and being honest about what I was feeling, I created a strong support network that I could lean on when I needed to.

When I think back to that moment 13 years ago, I am so grateful to that lady – her words and her kindness were a catalyst that made me take the steps I needed to take care of my wellbeing. I hope she knows that she saved my life that day.

Since then, I’ve still had my ups and downs with my mental health and may continue to, but I’ve come a long way since I was 19, and I know better now in how to manage my mental health.

The simplicity of a stranger striking up a little conversation with me was all it took to interrupt my suicidal thoughts

I throw myself into work and things that interest me, and have spent time with a counsellor. I encourage everyone to talk about how they’re feeling and ask for help if they’re struggling.

Ever since playing with a giant train set when I was a child, I’ve always planned to work in the rail industry, and even did my university degree in Geography & Transport.

When I started working at Network Rail in 2012, I heard that Samaritans provided training for staff working in the rail industry on identifying and helping people who may be vulnerable. Instantly, I knew I had to sign up.

I wanted to turn my experience into something useful and positive, and to equip myself to help others who might be feeling like I did back then.

The session was fantastic and interestingly shone a light on the fact that everyone has the skills to save a life, even without the training.

We can all make that small effort to look around us. If we spot someone who might look distant or distressed, or even makes us feel concerned for a reason we can’t quite put our finger on, trusting our instincts and saying something as simple as: ‘Have you got the time?’ or: ‘Do you know where I could get a coffee around here?’ might make a huge difference to that person’s day, and their life.

I’m always on the lookout for anyone who might need help. If I see someone who looks out of place or a bit down, I’ll just go over and ask if they’re alright. Nine times out of 10, the person is absolutely fine – but in trusting my instincts and talking to that one person who needed it, I know it’ll have made all the difference.

My experiences of both being helped by a stranger and going on to help others demonstrate that Samaritans’ Small Talk Saves Lives message is true. And it’s not just my word you can take for it.

Research has found that people with experience of suicidal thoughts said that verbal interventions, including small talk, providing reassurance and listening, are the most helpful things a person can do.

Every one of us has had a challenging year and a half, and one thing that I’ve certainly recognised during this time is the importance of human connection, particularly when times are tough. I’m here today because a stranger made that human connection with me 13 years ago.

As restrictions ease and we begin to do more in public, remember to look out for the people around you. You may feel a little rusty, but it can be as mundane as asking how the weather is!

So, if you ever notice someone who you think might be struggling, trust your instincts and talk to them. You already have everything you need to save a life. Take it from me, starting a conversation can be all that it takes.

Find out more about Samaritans’ Small Talk Saves Lives, in partnership with Network Rail and British Transport Police at: www.samaritans.org/smalltalksaveslives or join the conversation on social media using #SmallTalkSavesLives.

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