Mental health expert, Professor Patrick McGorry says hearing stories from people who have survived suicide attempts is an important step in suicide prevention.
Some of his colleagues aren’t convinced. They are fearful encouraging survivor stories will put vulnerable people at heightened risk.
Professor McGorry points out people who survive a suicide attempt have a positive message to share. They are grateful they survived.
He acknowledges that the general public doesn’t usually hear from people who have attempted suicide. But the current rates of suicide demand a different approach. He says,
“We have over 3,000 suicides every year, and more than 65,000 suicide attempts, and what we’ve had is inaction for a long period. We don’t hear the story of the people who die, so it’s important for us to be listening to the survivors.”
Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Sue Murray is supportive of this view and calls on people with a ‘lived experience’ of suicide to share what they know. She says,
“People who have lived through a suicidal crisis have unique insights that will help build our knowledge and understanding. They alone have the answers to ‘What drove them there?’ ‘What helped them live?’
Andrew lives in New South Wales. He battled severe depression and anxiety as well as drug and alcohol issues over many years. He says,
“I had lost all my support networks and had felt quite lost for a long period of time and that’s when the thoughts of suicide started to occur. I had started self-harming to cope and searching for a way out of the low. I attempted suicide on several occasions.”
Andrew was able to turn his life around. He believes his recovery was due to building strong support networks and seeking professional help. His word of advice to anyone thinking about suicide is,
“You have to have hope that it will get better and if you keep trying it can and will.”
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Peta is the daughter of a mental health nurse. She says, “I was the last person my friends would expect would be vulnerable to suicide.”
She tried to take her own life in 2005.
“I was what you would call a high-functioning depressive in that I completely didn’t fit the stereotype that was often portrayed in the media.”
“I was the high achiever, extroverted, all the way through high school, all the way through university.”
Peta said it was not until she finished her degree and had a transition year that she hit rock bottom.
She said she did reach out to her friends, but they were not equipped to help her and she did not want to burden her parents with her problems.
“It was only fortunate for me that when trying to end my life I realised ‘hey I don’t want this, I don’t want to die’ and I called an ambulance.”
Peta said there was a huge amount of pressure to balance work and life and was causing people to ignore taking care of themselves first.
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In 2006, Kevin survived a suicide attempt off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Onlookers reported seeing a sea lion swimming beneath him to keep him afloat until the coast guard arrived.
Kevin injured his back and required 14 hours of surgery to enable him to walk.
Kevin, who speaks publicly about his experience, says,
“I was suffering mentally with bipolar disorder, type one psychotic features… and I was hearing voices… they were telling me I was useless, worthless, not meant for this world and a burden to all who loved me – none of that was true but I couldn’t see it.”
“I had fallen into such depression, that I was in this bit of tunnel vision that led me to believe I had to die.”
Kevin explains he didn’t want to die but the voices were insistent. He says,
“I never wanted to, when they became so clear and so overwhelming that’s when the thoughts of ending my life came into play and that’s when I was on the bridge and the voices were screaming in my head, ‘you must die – jump now.’”
“And that’s what I did.”
His message today for those with suicidal thoughts is that there is another option.
“I think the message is simple: you don’t have to die this way. And today is not tomorrow.”
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The following story describes the difficulties a girl faced in accepting her traumatic suicide attempt had failed, and the long process she went through recovering from her depression.
“There’s a quote I found during that time which I like: ‘no matter how far from the truth we are led by histrionics and lies, the objectively beautiful remains untainted.’ I thought about that a lot and I still do. No matter how bad things get, no matter what awful things my brain throws at me, there is objective beauty in this world which can never be taken away. I worked hard to see it everywhere: Flowers, the moon, my cat, my mum, strawberries, anything at all. I just reminded myself that to me, these things will always be beautiful, and my depression couldn’t stop that. Eventually, it was less hard work to find beautiful things. I saw them everywhere, and still do.”
• • • • •
Research undertaken by national mental health charity SANE Australia and the University of New England found that a common feeling among people at the time of a suicide attempt was of hopelessness and that their ‘mental pain’ would never end.
Several participants reported that at the time of their attempt they had ‘an intense emotional pain’ that they wanted to stop. Others felt they were ‘trapped, with no way out’ or ‘worthless’.
What do we know about people who have survived a suicide attempt?
People who have survived a suicide attempt…
• are at higher risk of a further attempt during the first three months of their recovery.
• are extremely vulnerable and unfortunately they can encounter negative, dismissive or discriminating attitudes, which can make them feel they are not deserving of help.
• are often resistant to engage in follow-up treatment or drop out when it suits them.
People who have attempted suicide may or may not want to talk to you about what has happened straight away, if at all. If not, it is important to respect their choice, but you can still make it clear you’re there for them if they do want to talk about it.
Here are three ways you can support someone who has made a suicide attempt.
1. Listen without judging. It’s likely they’re trying to deal with intense feelings ranging from anger, regret, sadness, fear and guilt. While it may be hard to understand, it’s important to accept what they are saying.
2. You don’t need to ask probing questions about what has happened, or why. They’ll tell you when and if they’re ready. If it’s not something that you’re comfortable discussing, be honest with them about it.
3. Don’t avoid them because you feel uncomfortable – this can reinforce the sense of stigma. Get some ideas from counselling service about how you can communicate.