Saturday, 10 September 2016

A Candle of Hope

Every year the Samaritans publish a grim document; an annual review of suicide statistics in the UK. The latest edition reveals that there were 6,122 recorded suicides across the four home nations in 2014. Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that around 800,000 people die by suicide each year.

Numbers of this magnitude are hard to relate to without being broken down into a more meaningful scale. Put another way, we can say that Louise's tragedy is repeated across the country approximately 16-17 times every single day and around the world every 40 seconds. In the time it takes you to read this blog post another four or five people will have killed themselves. But even these statistical devices do not begin to convey the real impact of suicide. The raw numbers represent thousands of individual stories of despair, thousands of lost hopes and dreams. Thousands of people who did not want to die but felt that they were unable to live any longer.

And of course none of these tragedies happen in isolation. For every person who takes their life countless others lose a husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister. Each of these people, too, have their own story to tell, of the shock, pain, guilt and anger. The life not, in their case, ended, but still devastated beyond all recognition. Thousands upon thousands of Just Carry on Breathings'.....

It could even be worse. Much worse. Its estimated that for every one person that succeeds in taking their life between 20-33, in the clipped, clinical jargon, 'fail to complete'. 

There are no easy solutions. Suicide, it seems, is always with us. During the 1960's, the decade in which the act of attempting to take ones own life was absurdly belatedly decriminalised in England and Wales (it was never a criminal offence in Scotland) around 4-5,000 people died by suicide each year in the UK, a figure which, taking into account population growth, is broadly comparable to today. During the same period nearly twice as many - 7-8,000 - were killed on the roads annually. But by 2014, the same year covered in that latest Samaritans report, the number of fatalities on British roads had been reduced to less than a third of the number of suicides; barely 1,700. 

If improved design and manufacturing techniques, smarter traffic engineering solutions and improved public awareness and behaviours have helped make our roads safer then ever before, are there equivalent transformative measures for suicide prevention? And if there are, does the will exist to implement them? Everybody understands the risks of accidents on the road and, to an extent, shares some of that risk. 'It could happen to me'. In these circumstances we are motivated to invest - emotionally, politically and financially - in solutions. But despite the reality borne out by the statistics, for the most part mental illness and suicide remain hidden on the fringes of society and public discourse, something shameful and frighteningly 'other' nobody ever expects to experience. Suicide is something that happens to somebody else. Somebody
weaker and more vulnerable than ourselves and our family and friends. 

This ignorance and complacency kills. It certainly helped to kill Louise. Despite very recent experience of suicide within the family, knowledge of Louise's past suicide attempt and genuine insight into her mental state, I still underestimated the level of risk. It is, after all, extraordinarily difficult to truly grasp the fact that the person closest to you, the person that is your world, could possibly take their own life. 

The lack of understanding is compounded by the stigma still associated with mental illness and suicide. I see this frequently in the reaction of people who learn how I was widowed. Sympathy at hearing of my loss turns into wide eyed shock when they discover the cause. It is unlikely that neighbours would have gossiped behind my back about the reasons for Louise's death had she died of cancer or heart disease. Nor  would I have received hate mail accusing me of responsibility, or feel the need to defend her character from the hasty judgement of others, to emphasise over and over that she was not weak or deficient in any way. She was simply ill. No wonder many of those bereaved by suicide find it difficult to publicly reveal the fact. And, crucially, no wonder so many of those embroiled in an internal struggle for their survival, desperately trying to fight off the hopelessness that can bring with it the darkest of thoughts, find it impossible to acknowledge what is happening to them and reach out for help.

This evening I shall be marking World Suicide Prevention Day in the company of more than a dozen brave and resilient people who have also lost their partners to suicide. At 8pm we shall join thousands around the world in lighting a candle in memory not just of our loved ones but everybody who decided they could bear the pain of living no longer, and in recognition of those who have survived suicide, whether as a bereaved relative or one of the fortunate majority who 'failed' in their attempt, as well as those who continue to live every day under the shadow of suicidal temptation. 

Please take a moment to do the same. The more that we acknowledge and understand mental illness and talk more openly about suicide the more likely it is that we will be able to create an environment in which the Samaritans can, finally, begin to report much more positive news.

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