This will be a long post, but anyone who reads to the end who feels they want to share, please do. Suicide in the UK is a national crisis, but not one the government are reacting to as though it is. It’s nowhere near as visible an issue as it needs to be. For one, if it were, the government’s failing mental health care would have to be a top priority, and if everyone was privy to the fact that people were being failed far and wide it would no doubt upset people. But there are many reasons it has become such an issue. The main two, in my opinion, are Capitalism and the Conservative government. The former and the latter both give people the conditions in which to be selfish and act selfishly, and both also encourage people to do so. They also deprive those who are already poor of a means to live meaningful lives, and degrade the sick routinely in ways which to me and many others are indicative of a totalitarian regime. It may not be that the government are outwardly committing mass genocide in the UK – not visibly – but consider the terrifying suicide statistics and I’d happily put an argument forth for the contrary. It’s become clear that it used to be understood that the vast majority of people who commit suicide do so because they have a mental health problem of some kind which will involve low mood. It is not always the case. Other health problems unrelated to depression are now taking lives when they are not terminal – unmanageable pain not properly medicated – the misery of living in abject poverty as a result of becoming ill – lack of treatment – stigma – hate crime. And then the rise of suicide in the young due to the internet – not just cyberbullying, but the constant exposure, the need to have a ‘profile’ rather than an ‘identity’ and constant access to pornography are the main reasons I’d cite. The internet is great if you are not lonely. There are people out there, but it doesn’t necessarily mean those people are ‘there’. So many have taken their own lives due to being put through the despicable disability benefits assessment. So many people who have suffered unimaginable abuse are not given the help they need to live – they are ignored and have to turn to things not conducive to a fulfilling lifestyle – drugs – horrible relationships – further abuse – poverty – crime – and in many cases, unfortunately, where an abuser is jailed, the abuser themselves will very often receive far more treatment and therapy than their victim ever sees. These are just a few reasons people simply can’t manoeuvre around what feel like unmanageable tortures.
Having been in the system for over two decades I can clearly see now that many people who can’t be immediately categorised as having a severe mental health problem (and indeed many that have) simply won’t be able to access adequate support from mental health services. If they are offered it, it may be that a waiting list means they wait over a year just to see someone, or longer. It may be that it will be several years before even the worst imaginable issues are treated through talking therapies, and even then, this may only be a very small number of sessions of CBT. Medication will undoubtedly be offered in place of this. So what does a person do in crisis? I’ll give an example. I found myself in an inner turmoil so profound last year that I was admitted to a ward then told I could not receive any help five days later, after being treated appallingly. The details of this would shock anyone, and I am deeply traumatised still. This really only cemented it for me – I was not worth helping. I took a massive drug overdose, was taken into intensive care, and within an hour of coming round after 12 hours unconscious, I was sent back out onto the street. I wasn’t asked why, and I wasn’t offered any further support. I had no intention of going back there, or of getting it wrong. The next day I was admitted with injuries which required treatment. At this point police were stationed outside the room I was in, but after the wounds were treated, and I had bandages, and the doctor on call had deemed me ‘fit’ (I was in shock, and couldn’t speak) I was given some lorazepam, and two tablets to take home, and sent back out onto the street. I have survived, but that’s purely down to me. This is true for many people who have somehow managed to find the strength to claw their way back.
What I’m suggesting is that if a person presents with even the most acute distress, it may be that they are given no more than the number of a helpline. Many will refute this who have received support, but I know of many more who haven’t. In my opinion it is now down to us. So how can everyone help this situation? Many of you do an awful lot, and are very aware, but those who are not might benefit from this basic advice:
If a person, no matter if you know them or don’t, tells you they want to die or are going to harm themselves, or you suspect they are in the process of doing or will, it is your duty to act. No one else is going to sort this out in its immediacy, and it is your duty as a human being to ensure this person is 100% safe before you leave them.
If you find yourself in this situation with a stranger, gain their trust. Speak calmly, tell them your name. Their problem, if divulged (and if they trust you it’s amazing what they will divulge – you have to remember, they’ve kept it all in for too long) seems so insurmountable to them, that you can’t try to tell them it’s not. Take it that it is and work from there. There are no hard and fast rules about what to say but the bottom line is whatever they tell you, you sympathise, you tell them it’s really fucking awful. You make physical contact if they seem comfortable with that, and you listen. They simply need to feel as though someone in the world is prepared to listen, and sitting with someone in a crisis is the first step in helping someone feel they are worth listening to again.
If someone you know tells you they feel suicidal, never presume they won’t act. Never. Even if you have reason to think they won’t – imagine in 24 hours’ time them being beyond help, being dead. It’s a knee jerk reaction people have, don’t analyse it, and don’t feel bad about it. Don’t create a narrative for this person in your head – remember they are the only person who is in their head and the only person able to make a judgement on what they will or will not do. In the immediacy of this, be with that person. If you have something else to do, if you have to go to work, don’t. You may feel your time is precious and you can’t help the person, or you may have reason to be annoyed with them – but this is a human life, and dying slowly and painfully in unimaginable loneliness is not something any person should ever suffer. You simply have a duty to deal with this, as a human being. Don’t imagine someone else is paid to do it better than you can. In the long term, make sure you or someone else is checking in very regularly with the person. If you know someone you have only a niggling concern about, but it is nonetheless bothering you, it’s likely they need that concern. Check in, ask. Listen. Think carefully. Don’t make assumptions.
The problems that bring someone to commit suicide are often lifelong and simply can’t be unpacked in a day. They may not even be in the consciousness of the person – they may be being masked, it may be for exactly the reason that the person is unable to feel, unable to connect, unable to be with themselves and understand their own suffering, that they have reached that point, not because they are too sensitive, emotional, or crying out for help. Social withdrawal is a massive problem. If you believe no one will help it becomes pointless to seek help. If you have acted and been denied help or understanding, this is a misery indescribable, even as a writer. If a person has previously attempted suicide, or has been close to someone who has – there should be a massive red alarm flashing – the minute they have spoken of suicide, the ball is rolling. They may suddenly appear ok. They make be making a lot of plans, not necessarily ‘negative’ ones. They may be seeking to be alone, or they may even be calling up everyone they know to meet up. This is to say goodbye. Most people will want to tie up loose ends. They will be very good at it. It’s the only thing they have the energy for. The possibility of the cessation of their own pain is so close and reachable. They may be beyond the point of help. They may end their lives.
Someone who has ended their own life did not commit a selfish act. Consider they may have been too selfless, and not considered themselves enough. They may have concentrated on everyone else in a bid not to confront their own needs and their own suffering. They may have been unable to articulate their distress. They will have undoubtedly felt they had no other option. In that place, the black hole will suck a person down until there is not rational thought in their mind other than to remove all of the suffering, to find peace. They are not the only person to have suffered this, and they still aren’t.
The grief is unimaginable, but see that person’s life in context. See who they were, see what they meant, feel the grief fully, acknowledge its complexity. They are still here, with you, always. It’s beyond unbearable when someone is bereaved by suicide, and when someone ends their own life; but many can be saved.
Talk about this issue as widely as you can. Talk about it to people you know who will squirm, who aren’t aware, who suffer prejudices. Make sure people know that this is an issue we are all affected by, at some level, whether we know it or not. We each and all, even if we don’t realise, know someone who has considered suicide, has attempted suicide, has lost someone by suicide, or who is actively suicidal right now. There’s simply never an easy solution to individual pain, as it’s so unique to the person suffering it. Connection is vital. Do not lose connection, not yourself, with yourself, with others, and not with those you love. Make sure someone is ok today. It takes hardly any time. Text, call, write. Someone needs you. If you need someone, reach out. You do not deserve to be in that place alone.
INsight Artist Nan Goldin. Anthony by the sea, Brighton, England, 1985