I was sitting in a room with eight other people. The atmosphere was quiet, respectful. There was a sign on the door, “Please do not disturb.” We had come from the suburbs and further afield. I had travelled over 150 km from regional Victoria but thought it worthwhile. We were there because we needed to be there. We had been hurt and wondered whether the hurt would ever go away.
“Hurt people, hurt people.” We knew that to be true. We knew people contemplating taking their life are hurting. It is a psychological hurt, a hurt that challenges rational thought and threatens mental stability. We hadn’t appreciated the extent of that hurt and its power to render life expendable.
We were part of a support group, a remnant of those left behind. We had been handed a chalice of suffering and were invited to give account. It was a journey to the dark side. It was an exploration of our fears and doubts. We spoke candidly of our loss and wondered about our feelings of guilt. Were we complicit? Were our words and actions a catalyst? Were we guilty of neglect, a failure to do our duty?
We were told, “You acted on the knowledge you had at the time.” Whilst this helped ease the burden it also contributed to uncertainty. It implied that if we had been better prepared the outcome might have been different. It suggested that if we had been more aware, more understanding, more vigilant, their death could have been avoided.
Suicide grief is analytical. It sorts through every memory, it sifts every piece of evidence, and it speculates about a probable motive. It is an unrelenting search that pivots around the unanswerable question, “Why?” “Why didn’t I do more?” “Why was I so obtuse?” “Why didn’t I see the risk?” “Why didn’t I probe more?” “Why was I so blind?” “Why didn’t I get help?”
We often hear the words, “Suicide is preventable.” This is a hard saying for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. We live with the knowledge that we weren’t able to prevent their death.
Christine lost her eldest son Marc to suicide in 2015. He had been struggling with depression and addiction for a few years. Christine is concerned suicide prevention is often portrayed in simplistic terms. She says,
“An individual who has lost a loved one to suicide may read ‘Suicide is preventable’ and be overwhelmed by guilt thinking there was something more they could have done.”
Despite our best efforts, saving a life is not always the outcome.
World Suicide Prevention Day is on the 10th September. The theme for 2017 is ‘Take a Minute, Change a Life’.
This is an important initiative. It takes place against a backdrop of suicide statistics that defy our efforts to reduce them. Conservative estimates suggest 3000 suicides a day globally. That’s 3000 suicides a day every day even when many countries don’t have reporting mechanisms in place to know how people died. In Australia, there are 8 suicides a day. Every 3 hours someone somewhere is ending their life.
The World Health Organisation explains the purpose of this day:
“It is to raise awareness that suicide can be prevented.”
The theme ‘Take a Minute, Change of Life’ challenges us to reflect on our role in suicide prevention.
Suicide prevention is a shared responsibility. It is not something we can leave to the experts. There will be occasions when we meet people who are anxious, who are struggling, who are exhibiting emotional distress. We need to be ready to get involved, to show compassion and to provide the support needed.
There are two myths we need to dispense with.
1. People who want to kill themselves will find a way
Suicidal people are often ambivalent about living and dying. They don’t want to die but they don’t know how to live.
Heightened suicide risk is often short term. Any intervention must assist the person to ‘stay safe for now.’ Their world may look different in an hour.
2. Talking about suicide increases the risk
Given the widespread stigma around suicide, most people who are contemplating suicide don’t know who to speak to.
Rather than encouraging suicidal behaviour, talking about it can come as a great relief, and help them feel less afraid and more in control.
Most people contemplating suicide provide subtle clues about their intention. Sadly, they often go undetected. This is not intentional. Often friends or loved ones are struggling to understand the nature of the challenges being faced and are uncertain how to act.
Susan Bryant was married to gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Bryant for 28 years. He ended his life on May 4, 2017, aged 54. Susan acknowledges the signs were all there – the low moods, the disturbed sleep patterns, the unreasonable and stressful work demands – “but I didn’t see it coming.”
“He was a doctor, he was surrounded by health professionals every day, both his parents were psychiatrists, two of his brothers are doctors, his sister is a psychiatric nurse – and none of them saw it coming either.”
Susan has spent many hours reflecting on why her husband didn’t ask for help. She says,
“One of the few areas in which he was not skilled was in sharing his inner burdens. He never complained. He might have framed this trait as resilience or independence, but there were times when his inability to admit injury or weakness was troubling.”
It is not uncommon for people to hide their inner turmoil. For many, it is too difficult to talk about their emotional pain, thoughts of suicide, or the need for help. They are fearful of how people might regard them if they speak of their hurt and confusion.
We all have a role to play in protecting our friends, family members, and colleagues from suicide. It may mean an adjustment to our priorities, a setting aside of our personal commitments. It will require a willingness to start a conversation. It will demand a readiness to be open and honest in expressing our concern.
“Hi. You seem preoccupied. Is something on your mind?”
“Hi. You seem under pressure. Do you want to talk about it?
“Hi. I’m concerned about your business problems. Why don’t we have a coffee?”
“Helped people, help people.” Surviving a personal crisis is dependent on the support we receive. It may be wise counsel, practical advice or a compassionate presence. Knowing we are not alone allows us to stand firm.
Effective interventions are dependent on the person at risk being open about their struggle.
American pop rock band OneRepublic wrote a song ‘Someone to Save You.’ The words of the chorus speak to the issue of honesty.
Is what you need
It sets you free
Like someone to save you
Let it go
But hurry now
And I don’t want to lose you now
Let us make a commitment and accept the challenge to ‘Take a minute. Change a life.”