Sunday, 10 September 2017

Committing an Offence

No matter how often I think about it, the fact that suicide wasn’t decriminalised in England and Wales until 1961 never loses its power to shock. Barely believably, in a world of passenger jets, space exploration, television and pop music, one which in many ways appears not so different to our own, those who failed in an attempt to take their lives were still, at least theoretically, liable to prosecution and imprisonment.  Even if criminal proceedings were increasingly rare, hospital staff continued to meet their obligation to report cases of attempted suicide to the Police – and the Metropolitan Police’s own guidance of the time was unequivocal; "an attempt to commit suicide is an attempt to commit a felony, and therefore punishable with hard labour’.

We pride ourselves on now living in a more enlightened age, one which understands and recognises the dark force of mental illness and accords people driven to take their lives under its malign influence the same care and respect as those who have died by any other means. As we mark another World Suicide Prevention Day the media is overflowing with articles on mental illness. The risks, in particular those posed to young men, are increasingly well known. Suicide prevention is in the news.

But the language from that brutal legal framework of post war Britain, rooted in fifth century notions of the sin of ‘self murder’, is still with us. The phrase ‘committed suicide’ is so pervasive, so commonplace, that it appears in many of those same well meaning articles and features we read today. And its not just journalists and sub-editors. Even some medical professionals and others within the system continue to use the term. I can’t blame them. I used to myself. We fall back on it instinctively. In a game of word association, the two words would be inextricably linked. If you are not directly affected by the act of suicide you would have no reason to reflect upon its usage, much less challenge it.

But if you are, then the term jumps out at you and hits you squarely between the eyes, knocking you for six with its entirely inappropriate connotations of blame and criminality, straight from the musty pages of that Metropolitan Police guidance. Nobody would think that it’s acceptable to say that somebody has committed death by cancer or heart disease so why should we persist in doing so with suicide? Why should there be such a contrast in our treatment of a disease of the mind as opposed to a disease of the body?

It’s not as if there are no alternatives. ‘Died by suicide’ might sound a clumsy and unnatural formulation but only because it is so rarely heard. In describing Louise’s death I often simply say that she hanged herself. It may sound stark. It may shock but it accurately reflects her experience and mine. Neither Louise nor I have anything to apologise for, nor am I particularly concerned about sheltering others from the harsh truth – I have to live with the reality and the memory of it every day whereas their glimpse into my world is fleeting and distant.

No doubt some would argue that none of this matters. They are only words. But language does not exist in a vacuum. It shapes, articulates and reflects societal attitudes. They are words which unthinkingly betray a lack of respect and consideration for the victims of this particular form of disease, and for their relatives. They suggest that for all the lip service paid to mental illness there remains remnants of the dismissive and hostile attitudes more openly held towards it generations ago.

And those residual prejudices continue to be reflected in choices in healthcare funding where mental health services persistently find themselves relatively less well-resourced than other branches of medicine. Somewhere along the line, words – and the attitudes they consciously or unconsciously represent – form part of a chain of cultural ignorance which ends in real suffering and real death.

The implication that those driven by darkness and desperation to such extreme and tragic measures are somehow guilty of wrongdoing says more about the society which tolerates such attitudes than it does about those who it persists in misunderstanding and maligning. Perhaps we haven’t progressed as far during the course of the past 50 years as we would like to think.


  1. Gary,
    I've not found an easy way to contact you about sharing this piece- so apologies for the "public" approach- it is such an important subject and I just wanted your permission to copy and paste it onto the WAY UP resource page. There will be a number of widow/widower members whom may like to both read this blog post and possibly more from your blog if you are ok for me to provide the link. Very best, John.

    1. Hi John. Thanks for getting in touch. I'm very happy for you to share this or any other posts with WAY UP - or indeed anywhere else. Ideally I'd prefer a link straight back to this site rather than the article being copied and pasted into another form but if that isn't possible then a credit and reference to the blog and/or book would be fine. Take care. Gary

  2. I am reading your book. My husband did took his own life 3 months ago in the same way as Louise. He didn't show any signs of mental illness. He had only been to the doctors 3 times in 10 years. I think I am losing my mind. I'm finding your book comforting because you are describing exactly how I feel. I cry every day, I know I can't go on like this, but paradoxically, I'm relieved when I cry because it shows Robbie how much I love him. I not it's not logical. Nothing is logical at the moment. I'm frightened that i'm going to forget him, the real him. I don't just want to remember photographs. I want to remember what he looked like when he made a sandwich, the expressions of his face when he ate his favourite food. I feel so lost without him. Thank you for posting your thoughts. It really does help. Julia

    1. Hi Julia. I'm so desperately sorry to hear of your loss. I hope that its at least some small comfort in these unbelievably awful early days to know that you aren't losing your mind - everything you have described in terms of your reactions and emotions is normal. I experienced very much the same thing and so did the many, many others that I have spoken to who went through something similar. I cried every day for the first six months. Towards the end of that period sometimes I got through a day almost within crying but then felt guilty that I hadn't displayed any emotion and put myself in a situation where I was almost forcing myself to cry and felt better for it afterwards - the release of emotion almost purged some of the sadness for a very short period and I felt that I had done my duty by demonstrating my love for Louise. You won't forget Robbie, I promise. Its nearly three years for me now and I still have an intimately detailed recall of Louise. In many respects its still feels as though it were just five minutes ago that she was here - and in other ways it seems an eternity. Our concept of time becomes very confused but we continue to vividly remember what is important to us. I know that this won't seem possible right now but I can also promise you that you won't have to go on like this forever. Its a cliche and sounds very glib but the passage of time really does bring relief from all the raw emotions you are currently experiencing. We humans are remarkably resilient and its just not sustainable to continue to feel as deeply and as strongly as you do in the early days for an indefinite period. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, you'll find that you have moments of relief and distraction, periods when the cacophony of noise in your head - all those racing thoughts - subsides, even when you can smile and laugh and enjoy something again. And eventually those moments become minutes and then hours and days until suddenly you look back and realise how far you have come. In the last few months I have found myself feeling closer to my old self than I ever thought possible and so too, one day, will you. We can never be quite the same person again but we can learn to accommodate our loss within our lives and move forward while continuing to love and honour the memory of our partners. I hope that the book is of some help and I wish you much peace, strength and hope.

  3. Thank you so much for replying. I'm really struggling at the moment. I wish December would just do one. It's my birthday on the 16th then Christmas, our wedding anniversary and new year. We got married in Las Vegas at new year and always went away to celebrate our anniversaRyan. Mi say always, this year would be our fourth wedding anniversary. But we went away for new year before we were married. We were together for a while so I'm lucky in that respect. The loneliness is unbelievably cruel. We were best friends and did absolutely everything together. I've been writing a journal every day. It has turned into a massive outpouring of grief. I'm not sure if it's doing me any good or not. Thank you for your kind wishes and thought. I have joined WAY.