Trigger warning. This post discusses mental health, depression and suicide. Please do not continue to read if these topics may be triggers.
I am a firm believer that as a society we fail to tackle many issues adequately due to only dealing with the problem as it arises and not the many smaller things leading up to it. It’s like using painkillers, only ever treating the surface pain not the cause of the problem that continues to worsen.
I see it as a teacher. For example, we try to tackle behavioural issues as they occur not the things that may have lead to that (the bullying, poor family circumstances, trauma etc).
I believe this to be the case with suicide. Now just to be clear, what I’m writing today are my own ideas, I won’t be backing them up with relevant reading as that’s not what I do here. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have the experience to talk about it.
I personally have never had suicidal thoughts, but people close to me have.
When I was about 10 my uncle died by suicide. No-one would tell me what happened but I was smart enough to know. I wish someone had been brave enough to tell me though, maybe my views on it at the time would have been different.
Back then I was angry that he’d killed himself. I couldn’t understand how he could leave his two young daughters behind.
For years and years I thought of him as selfish.
Those two girls were growing up without a Dad and it was his fault. I couldn’t understand how anything could be so bad that you’d leave your only family because of it.
I was young and didn’t understand. It’s not like I’d even heard the term ‘mental health’ at that point in my life, I’m so glad that’s not the case now.
Many years later I had my 2nd encounter.
I was 17 at the time and someone in my psychology class died by suicide. I didn’t know them well, but the shock echoed around the college. I remember the shock. I remember the sadness that none of us had realised how much he was struggling, that none of us had done anything. I remember being unsure how to react in the following days and supporting my psychology teacher with her grief. To this day I still don’t know if what I did next was right or wrong, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that I needed to do something.
An email was sent around asking if anyone had words they’d like to be said at a memorial, or something to that effect. Here’s the thing. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. We shared limited interactions but I saw him most days. Did I have any right to say any words about him at all? In the end I put myself in the position of those who loved him most and decided to write a message. I talked about how he’d always smiled and always been kind and how I’d wish I’d gotten to know him more. All true and I hope it helped to support his loved ones and ease their pain. It’s nearly 10 years since that day. I wonder how his loved ones are now?
My third encounter came later.
It was different and came much closer to home. I met an incredible human in my first year of university, bizarrely our friendship grew through Twitter after meeting in real life. I’m not sure how we became close, it just sort of happened, but she became one of my best friends. Twitter and the internet in general has a funny way of allowing you to be open to the outside world. I think Tumblr is the only platform where we were more open, and we shared those too. This meant that I learnt a lot about her struggles before other new people she had met. I won’t go into detail, she’s one of my best friends after all, but she had various physical and mental health issues as well as family difficulties.
Just knowing those facts on the surface may seem enough for you to accept why she attempted to die many times in the following year. I remember the calls when I knew she’d done something, the texts that made it seem like she was saying goodbye. The constant checking of my phone in case she needed me, or worse still, in case the hospital called me. I had become her next of kin number- if something had happened she didn’t want her parents finding out if she was unsuccessful. It took its toll on me that’s for sure. I still look back on that year and describe it as the most difficult one of my life (not just because of this but it really did have a major impact.)
But if it was tough for me, how bad must it have become for her?
That year taught me a lot. It completely erased any previous thoughts of suicide being ‘selfish’ because now I could see, really see, what negative events and poor mental health can do to people. I saw how it plagued every waking moment of her life. I saw her pushing constantly to find something better, only to be knocked down again. I saw her frequent realisations that she just couldn’t do it any more.
But mostly, the thing that shocked me and taught me the most was her genuine belief that the World and the people she loved would be better off without her.
She wanted to relieve us of her being a ‘burden’. And this idea, which I’m sure isn’t uncommon, will stay with me forever. It’s the complete opposite of selfish, in their mind it may seem an act full of love for others.
That year taught me lots about mental health support in the UK too. The sheer lack of it. She got some support, she had access to a crisis helpline, saw a therapist etc. But it never ever seemed enough. I wanted more intervention for her, but it never came, despite several attempts on her own life, they could offer her no more support. Which seems crazy!
Which brings me back to my original point. The importance of early intervention. I’ve thought about this even more since I’ve recently read Jay Asher’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’. It addresses the many small issues that occurred in a girl’s life that helped lead up to her decision of suicide.
It’s important not to blame anyone for suicide.
It’s no-one’s fault, it’s down to a faulty brain as opposed to a faulty heart or liver in poor physical health- maybe we didn’t treat it the best but it’s still not our fault or the fault of those around us.
So whilst we’re not blaming anybody we can delve into a past probably built of small and large moments that have lead to this point. After all that’s what life is, a series of moments leading you to where you stand today.
It’s just that some people’s moments leave them unable to stand any more.
Ideally what I mean is that we hear people more clearly and we cultivate more open relationships. That teachers, family and friends are able to support individuals, with agency help, much earlier on. In reality that’s not exactly easy. What we can work on though is our listening skills.
What I currently see on social media is an outpouring of ‘speak’ a smaller outpouring of ‘listen’. My issue with this is not the size difference so much as the timing. We offer ourselves up to talk and listen too late.
Suicide is often the outcome from all of the smaller moments with no one to talk to or no-one to listen, building up and leading to a breaking point. Supporting at this breaking point may make a difference, and in many cases it makes a huge life saving impact.
But how much bigger could the impact be if you supported them at each moment?
How great would the impact be if you regularly found out how someone was doing and supported them through even the most minor of challenges, even if they look completely fine and at no risk? You can’t say what’s going on in their head or what could happen there in a year. But you can ensure they are listened to and supported through their whole journey.
You can make sure that everyone in your life has someone checking in with them. Someone to support them with big and small, happy and sad. You can be alert to big changes in somebody’s life (whether positive or negative) and be there to keep asking and listening, even in the months after the ‘newness’ has worn off and everyone else has stopped asking.
We can’t always be there. We can’t always solve the big problems. But we can, at least sometimes, be there for more of the small moments and support more steps in their journey.
Then hopefully they never get to a breaking point.
Find me on twitter: @Singlesalliknow