Suicide is not extraordinary
Suicide is one of those words that people whisper. The weight of it too much to get out of your mouth at once, the impact on unsuspecting ears too crushing to deal at full force. Thankfully, Suicide Prevention Day is an opportunity to dial up the volume on a difficult subject.
Working in mental health services for a few years has changed the way I hear and use the word. Suicidal ideation and action are such a regular part of the everyday that talking about it barely registers in my pulse. Not in the sense that I am no longer affected by the idea that a person might wish to take their own life - this could not be further from the truth. Rather, working in mental health enables me to recognise that suicide is part of a broad spectrum of actions, experiences and issues relating to a person’s mental wellbeing. Suicide is not a standalone issue.
It is, of course, critical that we talk about suicide, and that we talk about it well. Doubtless you will have heard misinformed rhetoric about suicide being “selfish”, “inevitable”, “attention-seeking”. This kind of unhelpful and compassionless commentary reveals a deep detachment from those human beings it describes. It is cruel and banal to marginalise someone for whom the light has already gone out on life. Sociologically, it creates a dangerous distance between suicide and the general public.
People who consider, attempt or complete suicide are not unusual. They are not even rare. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. When we separate suicide off as an issue at the extremes of human behaviour, we miss the point entirely and we create a dangerous detachment from our own ability to recognise early warning signs and keep ourselves safe.
Suicide does not exist in isolation. At work, we so often have clients whose first interaction with services comes when they are actively feeling suicidal. Often, they have been experiencing the symptoms of declining mental health for months or years. Often they have been dragged through the door by someone else because they have given up on themselves. By the time someone is feeling bad enough for those around them to notice, society has already failed them.
Changing outcomes around suicide requires that we understand that any one of us could feel suicidal. Any person with a brain has mental health, and any decline in mental health and wellbeing could confront a person with the consideration that the challenges of life are insurmountable. It also requires that we see suicide as part of a spectrum of behaviours or symptoms related to mental health including sleeping lots, drinking when we feel stressed, isolating ourselves socially, smoking, experiencing panic attacks or feeling depressed.
Mental health is affected by relationships, finances, beliefs, family, society, crime, work, gender, sexuality, diet, exercise, physical health, age, ethnicity, addiction, disability, culture... basically everything. Nobody is immune. Any person who considers, attempts or completes suicide had a day before things reached a critical point, a day before they started feeling chronically and increasingly sad. They had a day where they had lots in common with the rest of us. If it was easier and more socially acceptable to talk about and access help for your mental health during those early stages, who knows how things could be different.
This Suicide Prevention Day I ask you not to be dazzled by the weight of the concept. It is not an extreme and it is not unusual. It is not inevitable. Say the word at full volume and let’s continue the growing conversation about mental health, yours included.