Suicide is complex. I don’t hear anyone suggesting otherwise. But it’s not a topic that comes up in general conversation unless of course there has been a celebrity suicide. In such cases, we have to rely on the media to provide us with the facts. But the media are not generally concerned with the many factors that may have contributed to the death and rarely discuss them.
I worked as an employment consultant in the disability sector. Some of the job seekers had mental health issues. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts were part of the mix. Staff members attended a two-day training workshop in suicide prevention. It was a positive experience but I’m not sure I got it. I didn’t recognise how devastating suicide could be. I gained some insight, but it wasn’t until our son, Adam, took his life in 2011 that suicide became ‘real.’ And it was shocking and hurtful, and final. The grief was all-consuming.
Friends and family were supportive, but they were uncertain how to talk about Adam. They adopted a cautious approach, not wanting to make a difficult situation even more painful.
The most honest and helpful conversations came later. Support groups for people bereaved by suicide provide a safe environment. There is a heightened level of understanding and acceptance. It is freeing to be able to talk about the loss of a loved one to suicide without having to make excuses or provide explanations. It is healing not having to apologise for the conflicting emotions you might be feeling.
Talking about suicide is important on so many levels. As a society, we need to know why people of all ages and varying backgrounds are choosing to end their lives. We need to know how we can support people who are feeling lonely, depressed and broken, people who think about ending their life. We need to be aware of the social cost for communities where suicide continues unchecked. We need to understand how to reach out to people who have lost someone they love to suicide.
There are many reasons why people are reluctant to talk about suicide. A primary underlying factor is ‘fear.’ Fear is a strong emotion. Fear can be protective, warning of approaching danger. But fear can also inhibit. It holds us back, limiting our choices and our relationships. Fear cripples personal growth, limiting what we allow ourselves to engage with.
Let’s consider what those fears might look like and how they restrict our engagement with the important issue of suicide.
1) A fear of the unknown
For many people suicide remains a mystery. There are questions that defy an answer. ‘Why would anyone intentionally end their life?’ The causes vary, but without a clear statement from the deceased, there is no way of knowing what prompted their decision. It is a tragedy but then again, tragedies are not uncommon. So it might be wise not to get involved. After all, ignorance is an effective way of absolving ourselves of responsibility.
2) A fear of not knowing what to say
You may feel you lack an understanding of suicide and wouldn’t have anything helpful to say. Perhaps you regard suicide as morally wrong or basically a selfish act. As a consequence, you see no value in talking about it further.
3) A fear of saying the wrong thing
No one wants to make a careless or inappropriate comment that dismisses another person’s belief in themselves or their commitment to life. You may believe talking about suicide only encourages negative thoughts. A vulnerable person might be influenced by something you said.
4) A fear of being implicated
Some people believe talking about suicide poses an unacceptable risk. They insist it is impossible to know the mental health and well-being of the person you are conversing with. They may not be looking for answers but rather confirmation that suicide is a viable option. No one wants to feel that they may have contributed to someone’s decision to end their life.
5) A fear of death
Suicide is confronting. In many instances, suicide is a violent death and is not something you want to dwell on. Talk of death can be depressing and you may not want to go there. You prefer to focus on the positive aspects of life.
Suicide is a significant public health problem and it remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44.
Suicide prevention is not optional. It is a shared responsibility and everyone has something to offer. We can’t just leave it to the professionals. As with most things, our effectiveness will depend on what we know and our willingness to become involved. We need to increase our understanding of suicide, develop our confidence in talking about the issue, and have the courage to provide support when required.
It is important we don’t adopt practices common to social media where conversations about suicide often become disrespectful and judgmental. People who are hurting need to know they are being heard. Their need requires a sensitive and genuine exchange.
Jaelea Skehan is a respected leader in the prevention of mental illness and the prevention of suicide. She says,
“We need to ensure that as a community, we are not too afraid to talk about suicide while making sure that the conversations we have are informed, safe and helpful.”