I’m often asked why I spend my time working with this subject. “It’s so depressing”, “I couldn’t do what you do”, “Doesn’t it get you down?”
There are several answers to this and the one that is so important to me is that the work of suicide prevention is life affirming. I will say that again.
The work of suicide prevention is life affirming.
I love to hear how people have been able to shift from a place of great overwhelm, sadness, hopelessness to finding different choices are possible and how life can be lived well. I am inspired when a course participant says they’ve had a conversation with a close relative, and they realised just how bad things had got. That conversation led to the young man still being alive today some 3 years later. Even better, living a good life. When someone calls in to the crisis line with a plan to end their life that night, I am equipped to enable them to dial back from the intensity of that moment to a possibility of keeping themselves safe, for now.
This work can be inspiring and life affirming. For any human to experience the very depths of life experience to emerge with courage, love, compassion for fellow humankind, suggests to me that we have huge potential.
Yet so often when the subject of suicide comes up its mainly people who have been directly affected who care enough to act. That’s to be expected and yet, if we each saw a suicide as a failure of society, and we acknowledge that we each belong to society, maybe we would look at it differently.
Before moving on to discussing an approach and way forward to explore let’s remind ourselves of where we are now. How many people do you know who have thoughts of suicide? How many colleagues, friends, family?
Yet, if you consider 1:20 people are believed to be having thoughts of suicide, how many people might you know?
There are few people who have had no known contact with people having thoughts of or being at risk of suicide. And yet we continue to exist in lifestyles which do nothing to enhance our ability to live well.
The Ripple Effect
I am an Associate Tutor for Suicide First Aid and in our programme we talk about the ripple effect of suicide.
For every 1 person who dies by suicide, around 15 will be emotionally injured (those bereaved by suicide are likely to experience suicide thoughts themselves).
135 people will be significantly affected by that initial loss.
It is estimated 1:20 people at any time could be thinking about suicide.
Stop and think about those numbers. To make it more real, list 100 people you know then at random choose 5. Yes, that’s how many who statistics suggest are considering suicide as an option to be rid of a mental or physical pain.
In my lifetime I have been impacted through death by suicide. The first time as a teenager witnessing the deep distress of my best friend who lost first her mum through cancer then her dad through suicide. It was a confusing time and people didn’t know what to say. The unexpected loss of a parent when you are in your teens is a huge shock and one that can let guilt emerge for many years afterwards. The second time was a close family friend who I spent many summers with and had a secret crush on. He was a few years older. He experienced significant mental health challenges and was unable to find a way forward. He took his life in his early 20’s.
There have been a couple of others, people who matter to me who have struggled with feelings of hopelessness and feeling worthless. It breaks my heart that it goes on in the 21st century with everything we know.
What struck me and continues to is that we don’t talk much about how the way we live is detrimental to our health. In the case of my friend’s father, he was desperately lonely following the difficult end phase of his wife’s life. He felt a need to mask his pain for the benefit of his children. Yet by doing that might he have lost a chance to share the depths of his grief and potentially depression? Might he have got treatment in different forms and support that would help him through those dark days?
My childhood mate was a late diagnosis having had doctors not believing he was seriously ill. It transpired he had been struggling with a form of psychosis. His parents chose to keep things quiet, after all, it wasn’t something you really talked about. The treatment plans were disjointed, and he was left alone in a hospital feeling isolated and disorientated.
The stigma, the fear, the darkness and feeling that there isn’t any hope meant neither of these marvellous humans were able to live the life they were in. They didn’t have anyone who could support them to press the pause button and not make a big life or death decision in that moment.
I volunteer with a crisis line, and we never know what challenges or crisis someone is dealing with. A high % of those people I speak with are having thoughts of suicide. What I experience in many of those exchanges is a calming and a dialling down of the crisis. How can we create lives for ourselves where that possibility for moments of calm are more available such that the intensity, the heat, can be generally lower.
So, what can YOU do?
Notice people you care about. Really notice them. Might they be wearing a mask and in the grip of loneliness or helplessness? Be human. We know how to do that when we let ourselves. Sometimes it’s easy to delegate a caring conversation to a professional. Of course, sometimes people do need to see a professional and really do the work into understanding why and how they feel what they feel. But there is nothing stopping all of us taking some time to notice each other and listen to what we are each saying.
You can learn more about:
- Prevention (early makes a difference)
- Intervention (what can you do to help someone to stay safe?)
- Postvention (how are you being alert to those who might have been impacted through a death by suicide?)
You can watch your language. Recently someone was sharing with me how they had come back to a shorter working week after a bout of depression. He was working on recovery and hopeful to make a full return in the near future. Colleagues however saw fit to comment on his absence. “Had a nice holiday then?”. “You don’t look ill”. “If you can’t handle it you should leave it to those who can”. I’ve tailored the language so just imagine all sorts of expletives. Imagine if you had been ill enough to be hospitalised and rehabilitating back to work and you feel your colleagues don’t believe you were sick. Experiencing stigma and discrimination make any existing feelings of shame, low confidence, low self-belief worse. Ignorance is often covered up with brash comments hidden behind the wall of “banter”. It is very rare that anyone deliberately causes someone to become more unwell by being callous, it happens however usually its not knowing the impact. In this case both his manager and the health and safety manager undertook a widescale mental health awareness programme with some hard hitting messages. They also introduced clear guidelines. Recovery is probable not just possible especially with support. It doesn’t mean skirting around the challenges. It does mean robust, confident conversations that make it OK to have healthy conversations.
And, just pay attention to life. What I mean is to spend time living your life and not watching someone else’s through social media. Connect to real people; ideally face to face, if not pick up the phone. Often our soundbite connections through texting services are shallow not deep. Enjoy your time in the moment and worry less about yesterday, that’s gone now, or tomorrow, that’s not yet arrived.
So, what can WE all do?
Be an advocate among friends, family, and colleagues, for living a lifestyle that promotes health. Where we value and protect relationships with people who matter. Where we pay attention to how we each have a role to play in creating communities that allow people to thrive.
If you have an interest at the policy making level you may want to contribute to the survey currently underway. There is a review which is considering wellbeing and mental health holistically. Everyone with an interest in Mental Health and what happens next can contribute.
This UK Department of Health and Social Care survey aims to get a good spread of inputs about a mental health and wellbeing plan. Take the time to add your input – the survey closes on the 7th of July 2022.
I must say that it frustrates me that we think we need yet more surveys and reviews. We have so much knowledge, experience and data mental health practitioners already know what needs to happen. Lets hope this isn’t yet another review that comes out with the recommendation that for humans to flourish we need a holistic approach to health, environments that enable people to thrive, learn and grow, and we each need to recognise what is our responsibility and how we can be accountable. We know that, let’s just get on with making it happen.
We need to work together NOW to help dismantle our quick fix, shallow reach and popularist way of living and build something with firmer foundations and deeper engagements.