I have just seen the news that a well known former model and television personality has taken her own life, or committed suicide. I vaguely recall someone once telling me that you shouldn't use the term "committed suicide" as it implies the person is making an informed choice, or was that taken their own life? I'm not sure it matters really, when it comes down to it, she is gone.
It is sad, incredibly sad actually, when anyone takes their own life, and when that person is high profile suddenly the issues surrounding their death becomes high profile too. People are often shocked at why someone who seemingly had it all would end their life. Surely being successful, beautiful, talented is more than enough to conquer any kind of mental health problem. It's not.
The thing about mental illness is that it can affect anyone, like cancer it's a bit like a postcode lottery. Sure you can try and do things to keep your mind healthy and happy, same as someone can try and do the right things to prevent themselves from getting sick, but at the end of the day you can only hope that the big black dog doesn't choose you to invade because if he/she does you're in for a battle...
It doesn't matter if you are young, middle aged or elderly. If you are successful or have a loving family. If you have a mental health problem all of that can pale into insignificance compared to the pain you are going through.
I'm talking as if I understand what it's like to suffer from a mental health problem, but I don't. If I did I might have understood a little more of what my father was going through before he took his own life in 2002. For years he had battled depression,aggravated by an incident at work that unfortunately wasn't handled as well as it could have been. I knew that my dad, the most loving, witty and generous man you could hope to meet, could have days where he couldn't get out of bed, would sleep on and on in an attempt I guess to block out the world. But I didn't really get it. With the naïveté of a teen I used to tell him to go for a walk or join a squash club as excercise was known to help lift moods. I'd tell him off for being down, didn't he know how lucky he was compared to so many people out there? He seemingly had it all so what was his problem?! If only we all knew then what we are starting to know now.
I know it's only a little over a decade since my dad's death but when it comes to society's attitude towards mental health it could be a lifetime ago. Back then no one talked about depression, or suicide. I remember after Dad died people, friends, being so shocked that he had been unwell, not many people knew just how strong and brave he had been for so many years. More alarming was the number of people we knew that then spoke out about their own battles. People who had contemplated suicide, or attempted it. People who had loved ones who had taken their own lives but had always maintained they had died of something else. These were all successful, wonderful people. It made me realise that my family was what I had always believed it was, terrific, unfortunately being a terrific family doesn't make you immune to depression.
At his wake my god brother, yes in my family we have these, said that I should think of suicide in the same way as cancer. Some people survive cancer and some no matter how hard they fight just can't defeat the disease. I really like the analogy. Maybe if we started treating mental illness with the same gravity, openness and reverence as cancer we wouldn't loose so many?
With suicide comes a terrible fear of stigma. I remember my main concern after dad died was what would I tell people? I knew I wasn't ashamed of him, in fact I was proud that he had fought his battle for so long. But I also didn't want people to think badly of him, those that might not know him might make assumptions about him that were wrong or might make assumptions about us as a family. I remember bumping into an old school teacher a couple of weeks after he had died, one that I always got the impression wasn't my biggest fan. Suddenly, and in front of a group of people I didn't know she asked me what Dad had died of. Panicking and also sensing this was not coming from a place of concern but rather a place of curiosity I blurted out that he had suffered a heart attack, it had come out of nowhere and it was massive, he didn't stand a chance. The town I come from is a small place, to this day I'm sure she already knew what had happened, she just wanted to get it from the horses mouth. I went home and cried about how I had betrayed my dad. My mum told me not to be silly, I was protecting him. She said I would know who to tell and who to lie to, I still follow this advice.
Very few people that didn't know me before dad's death actually know what happened. I always worry that people will judge, or even worse will pity me. I know I'm not alone, work is a breeding ground for stress, anxiety, depression so there's no way some people there haven't experienced some kind of mental health problems themselves or have loved ones that have. But unlike other illnesses there's no way any of us are going to say anything. I have sat and listened as people around me have used the most offensive terms when discussing a news story that involves mental illness. Yet these are the same people that preach about what term to use when describing suicide. Ironic much?
At the time I said that one day I would use my position, whatever that might be, to speak out about mental illness. Show people that it can happen to anyone. I still haven't had the guts. But there is still time.
I'm starting to realise that I am part of the problem. How can I preach about how we should all be talking about mental illness and how people should stand up and shout if they are struggling if I myself am not brave enough to so.
At the moment it's easy to tell ourselves that suicide isn't really there, it's just something that happens in the darkness, only exposed when it happens to a celebrity that people 'care' about. And yet the statistics are frightening...
1 million people across the globe die by suicide each year. That’s one suicide every 40 seconds.
* More people die by suicide each year than by murder and war combined.
* Suicide is the second biggest cause of death worldwide among 15-19 year olds.
* 100,000 adolescents die by suicide every year.
* Suicide is estimated to be under-reported for reasons of stigma, religion and social attitudes. Many suicides are hidden among other causes of death, such as road traffic accidents and drowning.
(Source: International Association for Suicide Prevention)
I'm going to post this now because I'm worried that if I pause I might chicken out. I apologise for any spelling or grammatical errors I don't really want to read it back to check. I hope that by writing this I'm taking a step in the right direction, a direction that I vowed at my dad's cremation 11 years ago that I would go.
- In memory of Thomas O'Toole and all those affected by mental illness.