Warning: This blog contains material about suicide which may be triggering to some readers.
I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved with Time to Change for three years, and during that period I’ve met a lot of remarkable people who challenge stigma and discrimination around mental health on a daily basis. And all that hard work is paying off – attitudes really are improving. It feels like we’ve reached a tipping point, as layers of stigma are stripped away.
There is still one huge taboo with regards to mental illness though, I think, and that is suicide. Numbers are rising, particularly amongst men. In 2013 4,858 men took their own lives, and suicide is now the leading cause of death of men under 50 in this country. We have to talk about suicide.
It was the elephant in the room
For my family, the issue of suicide was brought into sharp focus in 2006, when my sister took her own life. My mum was convinced she had bipolar disorder like I do, but my sister was in denial and would accept no help. The shock devastated our family and her many friends – any of whom would have helped had they known about the battle she was fighting. In the days afterwards you go through a whole range of emotions, trying to make sense of the situation:
Guilt- could I have changed the outcome had I been around?
Anger- that she had selfishly taken the easy way out and left us to clear up the mess but, mostly, just an indelible sadness that I could never talk to her again, or give her a hug. Afterwards life goes on, but something is altered forever. Everything seems diminished. Our family dealt with it like I’m sure many do; we didn’t talk about it. It was the elephant in the room.
Some people might think suicide is selfish - this is far from the case
In the years that followed my sister’s death, my own mental health deteriorated to the extent that I tried to take my own life in 2010. In 2012 my bipolar diagnosis arrived and I started to get the help I needed. I had a relapse earlier this year, caused partly by stress and burnout from my work, and partly from coming off my medication. I was admitted to the mental health unit of my local hospital in a suicidal state, and spent three weeks there.
Suicide can be difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t been suicidal. Like I thought at the time about my sister’s suicide, I’m sure many people consider it a selfish act. That is far from the case. Some people also think suicide is a choice- again this is wrong. I actually think suicide is often due what people perceive as a lack of choice- the person who takes their own life believes it is the only way to stop the pain.
If I ever get to that place again, I'm determined to open up
I’ll try and explain what takes a person to the point where they cannot conceive of living any more. Despite having seen at first hand the devastation wrought by the suicide of a loved one, I was at the point where I genuinely believed that everyone who knew me would be better off if I wasn’t here anymore. All insight and rationale are lost. It’s not necessarily that you wanted to die- you just don’t want to carry on living. There is just an unending blackness in your mind, which you think will never end. You became very good at hiding it, putting on a mask.
When some clarity starts to return, you can’t quite believe you nearly put everyone you love through such a horrendous ordeal. Hopefully I won’t in the future. I’m in the best place I can be at the moment, busy equipping myself with the tools to keep on top of my illness. But if I ever get to that place again, I’m determined to open up to those around me before it’s too late.
There should be no stigma in talking about suicide
I think that people are afraid of suicide because they don’t understand it- so it is vital that we demystify it, and make it so that people are not uncomfortable expressing suicidal thoughts. It doesn’t make you selfish or weak, it’s just a symptom of an illness, and like other symptoms of other illnesses there should be no stigma or shame in talking about it- indeed, it should be encouraged.
My name is Tim and I want to talk about suicide.