Please note - Some may find the content in this article distressting or triggering. For support or information call: Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, MensLine 1300 78 99 78.
Today – 10th September - is World Suicide Prevention Day. On this day, numerous events, conferences, campaigns and local activities call to public attention one of the world’s largest causes of premature and unnecessary death – suicide.
Suicide is undoubtedly the most tragic consequence of mental illness. For many people with a mental illness, and their families, the fear that they will take their own life is ever-present. For others, the suicide of a loved one comes out of nowhere and the people left behind can be left with a crushing guilt that they should have done more to prevent it. Health professionals spend a lot of time (and worry) assessing how likely it is that their patients or clients may take their own lives, and making judgment calls about whether people need to be hospitalised in an attempt to keep them safe from themselves.
At present when I think about suicide it makes me tremendously sad. And confused. And a bit angry.
Not all suicides can be prevented. If someone is intent on killing themselves it is sometimes very hard to stop them. We should and we do try, but tragically and in some high-risk cases, short of constant surveillance in a secure ward, nothing will work.
But I do believe there are a lot of suicides that we can prevent. Some we do prevent. Others we miss.
We know that the majority of people who suicide do actually try and reach out to others in the weeks before they kill themselves. The message may not always be obvious, but if we really listen and be attuned to the changes in our loved ones, we may be able to hear the please for help. Similarly, improvements in mental health policies and further government funding for mental health services could help. For way too long, mental health has been the poor country cousin in apportioning adequate resources compared to other aspects of health.
So, on this years World Suicide Prevention Day, here are some of my current insights and perspectives into suicide:
- Suicide has touched my life in numerous ways, like it has most. Yet the statistics on it still surprise, disturb and devastate me. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide each year – that’s one person every 40 seconds. In Australia more than 2500 people die each year with latest figures (2014) telling us that 2,864 Australians took their own life. Research also tells us that some 65,000 people attempt suicide each year.
- As a society we seem to be getting a better at talking about suicide. Hooray for us! Having said that I don’t understand why reports on suicide always involve people in hoodies. This is a stereotype I am confident is not based in reality.
- Gentle reminder - People “commit” crimes. Suicide is not a crime. People “die by suicide”, they don’t “commit suicide”. Every day people commit crimes. They might commit fraud, theft and violence against others. People commit sin according to religion. Commit is a term used often in a derogative and negative way and is used to categorise and label an act. Suicide is not a crime. It is a tragedy. Using the word commit and suicide together instantly stigmatises the individual and puts shame on those left behind. These are both horrible things to do to someone and such intense hurt can be avoided by simply not using a word. So let’s not.
- In a similar vein, to say that individuals “attempted suicide” can suggest that they failed or that they didn’t do a good enough job. This can be incredibly offensive. I see these individuals as survivors. Courageous survivors.
- Talking about suicide will NOT give someone the idea to do it. I promise you this. Research shows that asking about thoughts of suicide does not in any way increase the rates of suicide. Think about it. Deciding that death is the only way out of pain and suffering is a drastic step that runs counter to every survival instinct that we have. It is not a step that people will decide to take just because they heard someone talking about it. If you’re ever concerned about someone’s thoughts, ask them. Please.
- It’s scary to ask someone if they are having thoughts about suicide. The first time. Then it gets easier. I clearly remember the first suicide assessment I did on a crisis telephone counselling line. I don’t remember the 10th, 20th, or 100th. Similarly, the first suicide assessment I did face-to-face with a client was nerve-racking. The 10th, 20th and 100th time I asked someone face-to-face less so.
- When we, as loved ones, lose someone to suicide, it is different to losing them another way. We know that there is still a sense of shame attached. We know that people who suicide are still thought of in a particular light. We know people don’t understand, and won’t try to. We know they are much more uncomfortable talking about suicide than other types of death. So then not only do we have the already impossible grief of losing a loved one, we have other feelings like anger and bafflement and guilt that can come along with this type of death specifically, and then on top of all of that we aren’t given the same amount and same kind of emotional support as others are. This seems unacceptable.
- When we, as health professionals, lose someone to suicide, it can be just as devastating. We can feel similar feelings of anger and bafflement and guilt. And sadness.
- When I experienced serious thoughts of suicide it was terrifying. And relieving. And distressing. And overwhelming. And futile. And hopeful. And disintegrated. And foggy. And all-consuming. And suffocating. And isolating. And so very painful. And not just for me. It scared those around me and my unhelpful and unhealthy coping behaviours had ripple effects. The first time I told someone I was feeling unsafe was really, really difficult. The second time was a little bit easier.
- My experiences of suicidality also feel like a life-time ago. I can hardly remember them. The last episode was two years ago. The distress didn’t last. It told me it would. But it was lying. That’s what distress does. Lies. I said this to Dr M just this week when we were discussing where I was 2 years ago. I said “All the feelings really do pass. Eventually.” He just did that all-knowing smile. Which is both irritating. And lovely.
So this World Suicide Prevention Day I send my love and thoughts and light to all of you whose lives have been in some way touched by suicide. And I send gratitude to all of those who have ever helped keep someone safe. And for anyone who might be feeling unsafe, I send you my strongest hopes.
Keep connecting, communicating and caring for each other. I really do believe that it does make a difference.
If you are struggling, please reach out:
LifeLine – 13 11 14
BeyondBlue – 1300 224 636
Headspace – 1800 650 890