Suicide is in the news a lot at the moment. We hear from public figures talking candidly about their experiences. Bravely sharing how, whilst gripped by depression, thoughts of suicide became a real threat to their life. The sad and untimely death of Robin Williams who took his own life highlights the private and tortured mind behind the public face. The emotional pain (the driver for suicidal thoughts) was just too much to cope with. His ‘exit from stage left’ marked by an unanswered question – why?
The reason why someone will suicide is a complex. The fact is, we are all capable of thinking about suicide, either because of an extreme life situation (persistent stress, loss, humiliation, coping with gender or sexuality issues), or due to a mental illness. For every person who takes their own life, there are many more who will attempt, and many, many more who will have suicidal thoughts.
The final act of suicide is unknown, but we are learning from those who have attempted to kill themselves and survived. They tell us that, at the moment they tried, their thoughts of wanting to die flipped to not wanting to die. Perhaps it was their survival instinct kicking in; there was certainly ambivalence. Knowing that thoughts of suicide can change means that we can help someone to stay safe, and we should make every effort to do so – right up the last minute.
To do this, we must know that a person is thinking about suicide. And there lies the problem. How can we know when someone is thinking about suicide? Well, we can at least suspect it, and that’s good enough to ask the question. For most of us, it is much easier to make excuses for the ‘unusually’ difficult behaviour of someone close to us. Whatever the behaviour, if this is something that is uncharacteristic for him or her, and has been going on for a while, check it out. It’s important that we do check it out because it is unlikely they will tell us that they are thinking about suicide. We just don’t talk about suicide openly.
Why is it that we won’t or can’t talk about having thoughts of suicide? Well, firstly and unsurprisingly, we won’t talk about thoughts of suicide because of stigma. Stigma is oppressive: it tells us that it is shameful to be weak. And if we can’t cope, then we are weak. If we admit to finding it difficult to cope, then we admit to everyone that we haven’t got the backbone to ‘just get on with it’, or to ‘grin and bear it’ – whatever ‘it’ might be. The ‘stiff upper lip’ of British culture is perhaps why we find it hard to admit to life being unbearable and, ultimately, to talk about the emotional pain we feel. The sad truth is, that if we don’t, it could kill us.
Secondly, some people find it difficult to talk about having thoughts of suicide because of an underlying mental health issue: it is simply not always easy to articulate how we are feeling. Depression, the most likely reason why a person might think about suicide, also tricks the mind: it tells us that we aren’t worthy, or we are a burden to everyone around us. It also manipulates our mind into becoming introspective and absorbed, focusing only on our emotional pain. It is difficult to see that there is a world beyond our inward self, and life itself becomes ‘hopeless’, with little or no future worth living for.
Suicide is the ultimate pain relief for emotional pain. We will first try to ease the emotional pain by calling upon our coping strategies. But, these become less effective when the distress, a normal response to extreme emotional challenges, becomes too much to bear and suicide becomes a real option – the ultimate coping strategy.
Changing perceptions through raising awareness, and learning how to help someone you suspect is thinking about suicide is important. To most, this will instil fear and trepidation. But it doesn’t need to be that way. There are courses that can help build confidence, and more skills-based training for frontline staff and professionals. There is also a simple way you can help. Just tap into your compassion and be aware of someone in distress. Be open and willing to support them, or if necessary to help. Supporting someone doesn’t need to be more than offering a ‘shoulder to cry on’ – a few minutes of your time to actively listen. And, helping doesn’t need to be more than making a phone call to someone who can help (to the GP, or the NHS line 111). It’s up to you, but it doesn’t take much to make a difference – #HeyAreYouOK @HAYOKcampaign.