On Friday, mental health hero Professor Louis Appleby gave voice to the disquiet many of us have been feeling about the use of the term “suicide” in relation to the Manchester bombing. Overnight, we have learned of more atrocities around London Bridge and Vauxhall. Our hearts go out to all who are affected.
Now let us face facts. Taking one’s own life as a way of killing others is NOT suicide. It is multiple indiscriminate murder, even if those who do it have been callously brainwashed by others who view the lives of fellow humans as infinitely expendable.
After I had endorsed Louis’s comments via Twitter, I was challenged by Karen Machin @kmachin to use my influence to do better. I joked that she might be overestimating my potential impact, but I also remembered something.
When I retired from the NHS, I made a promise to others but mainly myself to use the connections I had developed to campaign for improvements for those needing help with their mental health. I do this as an ex-nurse and NHS leader but also someone with my own experiences of mental illness and occasional suicidal thoughts and feelings.
This time last year was not good for me. But not as bad as 2013, the year before I retired, during which I spent months ignoring my increasingly negative thoughts, growing ever more irrational and obsessed with unimportant details before finally breaking down, unable to speak or look other people in the eye because I was consumed by shame and self-hatred. I had no wish to remain alive. On the day things finally fell apart, I came close to crashing my car on purpose, but could not face hurting others because I knew it was only me who was a worthless piece of shit. I was luckily surrounded by love and exceptional care. And slowly, I came through.
Last year was more of a blip than a breakdown. A few things conspired to make me wobble. But at long last I have learned to spot my warning signs before it is too late – disturbed sleep, unexpected tears, irrational thoughts, heightened anxiety, self loathing and suicidal feelings. Fleeting, but suicidal nonetheless. Asking for help will always be difficult for me, because when I am not at my best, I feel that that my place is to help others and to need help myself is self-indulgent and selfish. But when I did, again I got unconditional love and support. A week or so later and I was on the mend. Yes, I remain on medication, but it is about maintenance. Others take statins, I take SSRIs. I also ride my bike, meditate, write, grow and make things, and spend time helping others. When I get the proportions right, this is a therapeutic mix.
It is a privilege to be there for people experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings, or who are actively planning suicide. I know I have been dealt a more privileged hand than many, and I am in awe of the courage and fortitude people show in deciding either to keep going in the face of horrific challenges and experiences, or in reaching a decision that is the hardest anyone can make. Grassroots and Samaritans believe in self-determination. At Samaritans our entire purpose is about preventing suicide by giving people a kind and confidential place to share how they feel. We do not judge those who decide to take their own lives. We know that careful listening and compassion at such a time can help even those in the darkest places to find a reason for living after all. And at Grassroots, we believe that in reducing the stigma of suicide and helping friends, neighbours and work colleagues to develop understanding and skills, we can help save more lives. Our training is based on the best international evidence. It works.
Suicide can be an impulsive act by someone not in their right mind. It can also be carefully thought out and planned. Suicide casts a long shadow, not just on those nearest and dearest, but also on professional carers and volunteers who may have done all they can to keep the person alive. Samaritans and Cruse have recently started support groups for people bereaved by suicide. This work is much needed; although suicide has not been a crime since the 1960s, there is sadly still fear and stigma associated with such a death. It can be the most difficult of losses.
So given the complex sadness and what-ifs that accompany a death by suicide, and the guilt and shame felt by people like me who occasionally find ourselves thinking about it, may I ask for your help please? If you hear someone describing a mass murderer as a “suicide bomber” in future, please show them this. And please ask them to choose their words more carefully and reserve the suicide word for those times when it befits the anguish of the person considering it.
For information on suicide prevention training, take a look at Grassroots Suicide Prevention
To download the free Stay Alive suicide prevention app, go here.
Take care. And thank you.