Don’t stop talking
In the wake of the high profile death of fashion designer Alexander McQueen in February this year, Karen Machin discusses what to do when you or someone you know is considering taking their own life
Suicide or suicidal thoughts are a fact of life. You’d be surprised by just how many people have considered it. I suspect those who haven’t are definitely in the minority.
It’s a story that is rarely told. Suicide was illegal in the UK until 1961, which is why people still wrongly talk about people ‘committing suicide’. Before 1961, if you survived trying to take your own life you could be prosecuted and sent to prison. Wrongly, some of that stigma and shame survives, making it difficult for people to seek help when they first start to feel low, stressed or suicidal, and then it continues to harm families and friends who are bereaved by suicide. That stigma isolates us all.
We can feel that we’re the only ones in the world facing such a problem. We hide that we have felt suicidal, or that we are coping with someone else’s suicidal feelings, or that our relative has died in that way. Even in support groups that are specifically for people experiencing mental distress or the people who care for them, suicidal thoughts just aren’t spoken about.
How many people are affected by suicide?
There are approximately 5,000 suicides every year in the UK. It is estimated that a further 170,000 people attempt or consider suicide each year each year.
My partner took his own life. I sketched out a diagram of the number of people it affected. In the centre I placed our immediate family, people who would understandably be affected for the rest of their lives: his parents, our children and some of the relatives who had been there for him during his long periods of distress.
Outside that circle, I placed other close family and friends. Here were our sisters, brothers and their partners, nieces and nephews, aunties and uncles, grandparents, cousins and close friends. This was the group of people who had been there ready and waiting for the more positive times. There were people who would have done anything to help, as well as others who worried but didn’t quite know what to do.
In total, this came to over 40 people – although we’re not a particularly large family and, after years of illness, we had become isolated from friends and any social circles. I realised that most of them had ended up needing some form of support such as anti-depressants or talking therapies. Suicide isn’t contagious, or genetic, but it certainly affects other people’s wellbeing.
I added to the list all of the other people who were definitely affected by his suicide. The train driver and guard who had months off work, his care coordinator, the police and other emergency workers, previous work colleagues who flew in for his funeral, friends we hadn’t been able to see in the months of his distress, his friends from primary school who he’d recently tracked down, neighbours, our children’s friends, more distant relatives.
All in all, for our one average suicide, I could definitely say that at least 60 people were deeply affected.
A problem too big to talk about
This made me want to work out how many people each year were touched by suicide. Being conservative about my estimate – let’s halve that, call it 30 people for each death. Given that there are around 5,000 suicides every year in the UK, that will mean there could easily be around 150,000 new people every year affected by suicide. And we don’t get over it in a year – that experience changes us forever.
Then, add those 170,000 attempts each year. How many people do they affect? There is very little research into the effects of suicide attempts on family members, but surely it must mean that at least 170,000 people are affected in some way.
So that’s over 300,000 people each year affected by the issue of suicide – either by having attempted it, or by supporting someone, or by being bereaved. That’s a massive number of isolated people staying silent about suicide, people with experience they could be sharing.
Lucy Reynolds, author of My Life Changing Moment says, “Being more open about suicide, and its effects on those left behind, has to be a good thing. So many people are suffering in silence from grief because they feel they are the ones who have done something wrong, when all they did is lose someone they loved to suicide.”
We all need to talk
I asked survivor support group members what they would say to someone who was feeling suicidal. With the benefits of hindsight, they advised to seek help, to talk, to let someone know. There was an overwhelming sense that suicide doesn’t end the pain – it just transfers it to others. Many felt that, if their loved ones had known that, then they wouldn’t have done it. Many could accept that their loved ones had felt they were doing the right thing – that old cliché that they’d be better off without them.
But the reality was very different. It hadn’t made anything easier; it hadn’t sorted out the problems. For some it had caused more problems as issues such as debt had been revealed.
Their advice was to share the problem and talk about it – all problems are better shared. And keep at it – if the first chat doesn’t solve it, then say so. Ask for more help.
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a national campaign aimed at men aged 15-35, echoes this suggestion: “Most suicidal people don’t necessarily want to die, they want an answer to their problems. It’s a decision made when other options seem impossible. While suicide can seem like the only way to deal with the pain, there’s ALWAYS another way – it’s just finding it that can sometimes be tricky. So don’t try and find it on your own. Two heads are better than one. Talk it over with someone. Tell them what you’re thinking and why.”
Thinking of suicide?
· Trying to talk to someone – sharing problems makes things easier.
· If you’ve recently started taking any medication, check with your GP in case it’s making you feel low.
· Remember that suicidal feelings do pass.
Worried about someone else and suicide?
Many of us don’t like to talk about our own problems. And it can be just as hard to ask someone else about theirs. But what have you got to lose?
Remember you don’t have to be able to solve the problem, or even understand it. Just listening to them and giving your time, tells them you care.
Start a conversation.
Ask open questions to encourage them to talk – When? Where? What? How? “Why?” can make people feel defensive so you might want to avoid it – “What makes you feel like that?” can be easier to answer than “Why do you feel like that?”
Let them find their own answers – act as their sounding board.
Ask them if they want to end their life – and take it very seriously if they say yes.
Know who else to contact – or offer to help find that person or organisation – reassure them they are not alone.
It really does help to speak to someone from a third party organisation. Some, such as HOPELineUK, CALM, Maytree or Samaritans, are specifically concerned about feelings of suicide.
Many other organisations may be helpful with the root causes of the problem including Mind, Rethink, Students against Depression, Bullying Online, Age Concern, Princess Royal Trust Carers Centres, Citizens Advice, Combat Stress, Lesbian & Gay Foundation, NHS Direct, Relate and many more.
Your GP may be useful and have local knowledge of support services.
And if someone won’t talk? Don’t get angry or frustrated. Just let them know you’re there and that you care. Maybe they’d prefer to write something down? Try to talk again soon.
Do make sure you look after yourself – if you are a carer for someone else who can’t manage without you, you too need support. Contact your local carers centre earlier rather than later.
There are several organisations you can contact for support, practical advice and information around suicide.
· The Samaritans: a charity which offers confidential, emotional support to anyone, in the UK or Ireland, who is feeling distressed or in despair.
Tel: 08457 90 90 90 (local rates, open 24 hours, every day).
Minicom number: 08457 90 91 92 Email: email@example.com
Write to: Chris, PO Box 9090, Stirling. FK8 2SA
· HOPELineUK can give support, practical advice and information to anyone who is concerned that someone they know may be suicidal. They focus predominantly on preventing suicide by people aged under 35.
Their phone line is open from 10 am to 5pm and 7pm to 10pm, Monday to Friday, and 2pm to 5pm at weekends.
Tel 0800 068 4141 Website: www.papyrus-uk.org
· CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) – is a registered charity, launched as a campaign to bring down the suicide rate among young men. As well as a great male-friendly website, the campaign works on the ground in local CALMzones, promoting its free & confidential helpline across areas like East Lancashire and Merseyside with local health funding. Key to CALM’s success is their emphasis on building a credible brand that young men respect and their partnering with local nightclubs, music festivals etc.
· Maytree: a sanctuary for the suicidal. They offer a short one-off stay in a safe residential setting with the aim of restoring hope with an opportunity to talk and reflect.
Tel: 020 7263 7070 Website: www.maytree.org.uk
For people bereaved by suicide:
· S.O.B.S. Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide was set up to support people bereaved by the suicide of a close relative or friend. They run support groups as well as offering a confidential helpline service.
Tel: 0844 561 6855 9am to 9pm every day
· Widowed by suicide: aims to reduce the isolation felt by those who have lost their life partner through suicide, providing emotional support and informal advice, by sharing individual experiences in a safe and secure environment.
Currently only online at: www.widowed-by-suicide.org.uk
· Lucy Reynolds’ book follows the emotions and practicalities she faced when coming to terms with being widowed by suicide at the age of thirty seven.