The Elephant in the Room

In loving memory of Curtis James Lambert: 09/08/1994 – 14/11/2014. Forever missed, always loved.

Death. It’s a devastating thing no matter the circumstance. When someone dies as a result of an accident, crime, physical illnesses there is no stigma attached to the cause of death, so why is this not the case when the mind is ill? We need to break through the stigma and remove the taboo.

“Suicide is an earthquake. Sudden, jolting and catastrophic, it ruptures the lives of those it leaves behind. The aftershocks ripple into subsequent generations. We spend years navigating our emotional landscapes, seismically realigned by chasms of guilt, confusion and regret. We build bridges when we share our grief, seek individual or group therapy, and work toward healing and growth.” – Kristina Cowan

It is like people can’t even say the word, suicide. Why are people afraid to talk about suicide? I believe that it is largely because people just don’t understand it, the fear of the unknown.

It is so essential for the subject to be discussed openly so that people are not uncomfortable or afraid of expressing suicidal thoughts. There has always been and still remains huge levels of stigma surrounding suicide, which can discourage people to talk about the subject, worryingly 28% have even said that negative reactions from others had made them want to give up on life (Time to Change). It comes with fear over being labelled as ‘weak’, ‘attention seeking’, ‘selfish’ and the good old ‘crazy’ tag. In reality it is a symptom of an illness, just like a fever, a sore throat or nausea. Symptoms of physical illnesses would be discussed stigma free, so should suicidal thoughts, there is no shame.

There is also the issue of ‘criminalisation’. In the UK, suicide was still deemed to be a crime until 1961, where those who had attempted suicide and the families of those who had died by suicide could be prosecuted. It was essentially classified as ‘Self-murder’, and was a great reason for unjust stigma – though no longer deemed a ‘crime’, the terminology surrounding suicide still does so in such a manner as before 1961, the most common being ‘Commit Suicide’ which indicates the person has carried out an unlawful act. It is stigma surrounding not only the subject itself, but also the way in which it is spoken about that needs to be tackled.

By discussing ‘The Elephant in the Room’ it can lead to reduced stigma for families and friends suffering suicide bereavement, but also encourages those that have thought about or attempted suicide to seek support. Suicidal feelings do not have to end in suicide. As for all mental illnesses it is too often categorised as being intentional, being a choice. In reality there is no choice, no one wakes up one morning and thinks do you know what would be fun today… to walk around with what feels like a backpack full of weights dragging you down, a dark cloud over your head that doesn’t clear, the slowing reality of life and enduring overwhelming pain.

Suicide is the leading cause of death amongst people under 35 in the UK, yet the perception of it being a ‘taboo subject’ results in silence and avoidance. Losing someone you care about is difficult in any circumstance, but those who have lost someone to suicide often feel additional difficulties. Suicide sends shockwaves through those left behind. There is no closure. So many unanswered questions, Why? What if? What could I have done? In reality there are few answers. A huge range different emotions may follow, sadness, guilt, anger, and hopelessness to name a few. It is understandable to feel such emotions, and their death can make you feel very low yourself. There are numerous places that you will be able to go for support regarding these feelings and I have included a list of organisations that may be useful, alongside the incredibly insightful Vlogging Channel ‘Suicide Taboo and Life Without You’ created by Abbie and Sophie who have both lost family members to suicide at different stages in their lives. Check it out when you have a chance, it is incredibly powerful.

You might be thinking, how do I know if someone is having suicidal thoughts? How do I recognise that someone may be at risk. There are no clear guidelines for this, because the truth is it can affect anyone, and as individuals the ‘signs’ often present themselves in many different ways; and in some cases there might be no noticeable signs. There are however, some ‘signs’ that can be looked out for:

  • Changes in behaviour; self-harm, giving away possessions, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

  • Changes in the language used; “I wish I wasn’t here”, “It doesn’t matter anymore”, “ I have no purpose”, “I feel hopeless”, “I am a burden”

  • Changes in physical health; Sleep disturbance, weight loss/gain, increased sickness

  • Changes in emotional wellbeing; Overwhelming feelings of anger, hopelessness, loneliness, worthlessness, isolation, sadness

This is far from definitive; it is always worth trusting your gut instinct. If you feel concerned that someone is not okay, speak openly to them and listen without judgement. Try to avoid questions such as “You are not thinking of doing something stupid are you?”, this is all too common and can give the impression that you don’t validate their feelings and you would judge them if they were to be honest with you. Instead ask them directly “Are you thinking about ending your life?”. Don’t expect an answer straight away, such a question can be extremely confronting, allow the person some time to answer, wait for their response and be reassuring.

If they tell you that they are having suicidal thoughts, allow them to speak to you about it without trying to throw ‘magic solutions’ at them, there feelings won’t change overnight, do not make light of what they have said and do not try and go off topic. Show them that you are there for them, that you care and that you will support them in seeking help.  If they tell you that they have not been having suicidal thoughts it is very unlikely that the person would be angry or offended by this, and research has shown that talking about suicide does not ‘put the idea into someone’s head’ as though it has previously been suggested. Not asking is too great a risk to take. If anything your loved one now knows that you are open to discussing suicide if there was ever a time that they felt they needed to and shows that you are ready to listen and would be willing to help them access support.

If they have already acted upon these thoughts it is extremely important to call 999 or take them straight to A&E to seek emergency medical support.

 

Below I have included a ‘Care Plan’ template, which is a practical plan that can help with thoughts of suicide, including ways to avoid vulnerable situations, who to reach out to and ways to cope. I have also included a list of organisations that can provide more detailed understanding and support regarding the issues raised above should you have any concerns or queries.

Care Plan

  • Things that make me vulnerable/warning signs

    • What have I learned from the time when I have felt suicidal before

  • Making my environment safer/disabling plan

    • How can I reduce access to alcohol/medication? Where can I put things I could use to harm myself so that they are harder to get to? Where can I go to that I feel safe?

  • What can I do right now that will keep me safe?

    • What coping strategies can I use? What has worked in the past? Is there anywhere I can go that will be safe?

  • Who can I reach out to for help?

    • Who is available to help me? Who has helped me in the past? What helplines or emergency contacts can I use? Go to A&E or Call 999

  • List ten things you could do to help yourself

    • For example. Call the Samaritans. What can I do to distract myself? What things should I avoid that make me feel worse

Further Support Details

Thank you for taking the time to read today’s post. To all of you out there, you are not alone, it is okay to not be okay, it is okay to talk, your feelings are valid, please seek help.

 

By Jodie Goodacre

 

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