My family could have had to go through what an average 17 families, a day, in the UK, experience: utter devastation, so many unanswered questions endless what-ifs. Suicide rates in the UK are shockingly high. It’s a huge yet so often overlooked and misunderstood problem in our society. It’s the number one cause of death amongst all young people age 20 to 34,and men under 50. These deaths are preventable.
I look back at my own story and wonder what would have made a difference. In my recovery, the difference between my physical and mental health care was stark. Despite government promises of extra cash, mental health services have struggled with years of underfunding and are struggling to meet demand. To put physical and mental health care on an equal footing will require a major change to our health system. However, there are changes that we can all make at a grassroots level that can have a media impact and don’t cost a penny.
That starts with increased understanding: depression is not a weakness nor a character flaw; it’s a debilitating illness that affects how we think, feel, and function. When depression becomes severe, suicidal thoughts are common. These thoughts can progress to plans and then to actions. If we learn to recognize signs of depression both in ourselves and others, early intervention can prevent the illness from ever escalating to the point of suicide. Many of us are quick to judge things we don’t understand.
I hear suicide described as selfish, cowardly; I believe that’s us looking at the situation through the prism of a healthy mind. Usual rules don’t apply when you’re in the depths of depression, it warps your thinking. If we understand that, we’re in a much better place to support people in these situations.
Secondly, we can challenge stigma. Even today, well-meaning friends refer to this chapter of my life as ‘my accident.’ “Tell it as it is,” I tell them, “or else, we’re all complicit in feeding the stigma.”
Misconception and stigma smother hope. They compound the cruel elements of the illness: isolation, shame, self-loathing, and prevent people from reaching out for help. Surely, we can all play a role in creating a society where people suffering the torment of depression can reach out and talk openly without fear of recrimination or stigma.
Thirdly, we need to grasp the nettle when it comes to talking about difficult issues. When I came out of hospital, I sat down with each of my children to explain what had happened I remember thinking at the time, “This is a conversation no mother should be having with her child.” But as times gone on, and I’ve come to understand the extent of the problem, I think we should all be having conversations with our young ones about mental health. I thought when it came time for my own kids to fly the nest, it would be death from alcohol, drugs, or a road accident that were on my list of worries.
Statistically, suicide trumps them all. If someone you know is showing signs of depression, ask them how they’re feeling, give them permission to talk about it, remind them there are places to go to get help – Samaritans, Crisis Line; don’t bury it thinking it couldn’t happen to us because it can. Some of us will have our own stories to share. I do realize it’s not easy – I chose to hide my own depression – but jumping off a bridge slightly blew my cover. Sharing our stories is so important; it sends a message to others that they’re not alone that we all struggle to cope from time to time and that it is possible to find a way through this. Like me, you might be surprised to find out how much compassion and understanding is out there.
Once we start the conversation. When I was at my lowest ebb in the depths of despair, George’s bookmark and his message of hope was really powerful. Together, through increased understanding by challenging stigma and just by talking, we can all provide hope, we can all be part of the solution. Thank you.