Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and I, like many other bloggers, have decided to mark the event with a post about suicide and suicidal thoughts. It’s an unusual one for me because the subject is particularly serious and not one that deserves my usual flippant and slightly sardonic treatment…..
A short time ago, I learned of the death of a colleague. It wasn’t a close colleague, more someone I chatted with in the coffee queue or the lift. His death came as quite a surprise to be honest. He was 48 years old and was the picture of health. The announcement concerning his death stated that he had ‘died suddenly following an illness’. It was sad news and I knew he would be missed around the campus because he was one of those cheery, chatty people who everyone knew to talk to. I thought no more about it, until I read an obituary in one of the educational supplements – the illness that killed him was depression and he had taken his own life following a lifelong battle with it…..
Strictly speaking the announcement on our staff intranet was accurate – he had indeed died suddenly following an illness – but those words said nothing of his experience, or the tragedy of his death – they almost made his death sound peaceful and inevitable, when in truth it was neither of those things. Those words prove that suicide is still loaded with stigma and that we try to protect ourselves from it by refusing to acknowledge it even when it is staring us in the face. We simply don’t talk about suicide despite the fact that one in five of us will have suicidal thoughts at some point in our lives. That’s a lot of people thinking about something that we can’t bring ourselves to talk about.
Worldwide suicide statistics are shocking – 3000 people take their own lives every single day and for every person who takes their life, another twenty people will attempt to. Unless my maths is wrong (which, of course it could be) two people take their own lives and 41 attempt to every single minute of every single day. In the time it took me to write about numbers two people will have died at their own hands. Let that sink in for a minute ……….. By the time you’ve done that two more lives will have been lost.
Of course, not all suicides can be prevented – that’s a sad fact we have to accept. That said, the vast majority of suicides can be prevented – and that’s a sad fact we cannot accept. Poor mental health is a significant risk factor when it comes to suicidal thoughts and behaviour and as far as suicide prevention goes, that’s something that we have to take very seriously indeed. Poor mental health is entirely treatable and should never, ever, come to be seen as a terminal illness.
So how do we prevent vulnerable people from taking their own lives? By ensuring that we have adequate suicide prevention strategies in place – it seems so simple. We must continue to work to reduce access to the means of suicide, we must continue to target resources at high risk groups, and we must continue to insist that our woefully inadequate mental health services are improved and are as accessible as possible at the point of need. Suicide prevention strategies need to be ongoing, long term and regularly reviewed. Crucially, suicide prevention strategies need to be adequately resourced which means we have to make sure that suicide prevention and mental health awareness are issues that are kept at the top of government health agendas.
Finally – we have to talk about suicide: openly, sensibly and without judgement. Suicide and suicide attempts are not acts of cowardice, or selfishness but they are frightening, difficult to understand and full of stigma. In some countries suicide and suicide attempts remain criminal offences; even in countries like the UK, where suicide hasn’t been illegal since the early 1960s it is still routine for us to say that someone ‘committed’ suicide in the same way that we say someone committed a heinous crime. We have to move our opinions on, we have to get people talking about suicide if for no other reason than if somebody is talking about suicide, they are not actually carrying out a suicidal act.
For my own part, I have made three serious attempts to take my life. Each time the circumstances were slightly different but each attempt had something in common. They all came at times when I had isolated myself and withdrawn from support, interventions, friendships and family relationships. I’d been keeping secrets and I had nobody to talk to. I didn’t have to explain the logic that had led me to my decision, I didn’t have to think about the consequences of my death, and I could convince myself that taking my life would be quiet and peaceful rather than painful and chaotic. In my experience talking through these very practical issues is a particularly good start in saving a life.
A great many people reading this post will experience mental health difficulties and will know, from bitter experience, how bleak and distressing suicidal thoughts are. Some of you will have survived suicide attempts. Some of you will be thinking about suicide at the moment, and others will come to think about it in the future but none of us should become another suicide statistic because we have something very powerful. We have words and we can keep on using them to talk about suicide – to each other, to our friends and family, to the medical professionals charged with our care and to our politicians. We can use words to keep us safe, to save our lives, and to save the lives of others.
I thought I would end with some words that once played a significant part in saving my life. They’re taken from the opening chapter of D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover and they mean a great deal to me – I try to keep them swimming around my head at all times, but especially in times of distress:
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
Lots of love from WeeGee xxx
PS – I’m sorry I didn’t include a link – the official site for the day appears to be down. Hopefully that indicates high volumes of traffic and is therefore a good thing.