We must talk — but suicide prevention day is not just today, it is every day

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

‘I’ve always assumed suicide’s the way I’ll go.’

A short sentence from a conversation with someone I used to know. Those words have stayed with me. How could they not?

I have thought about him a lot these past few months. And now it’s World Suicide Prevention Day. So, of course, I’m thinking of him today.

The day he uttered those words, we were comparing notes about suicide. He’d tried to take his own life several times in the past. I’ve only tried the once, 18 years ago.

But, like his words, my suicide attempt has left its mark right enough. Its indelibility is something I must live with.

Yesterday, I started reading Alastair Campbell’s new book, Living Better: How I learned to survive depression. The book has a short preface which starts like this:

‘On a dark Sunday night last winter, I almost killed myself. Almost. I’ve had a lot of almost. Never gone from almost to deed. Don’t think I ever will.’

I’m with Alastair. Unlike the man I used to know, I don’t assume suicide is the way I’ll go. But, in truth, I don’t know either. Not really. If I said it had never occurred to me, albeit it fleetingly, these past 18 years, I’d be lying.

What I do know for sure, like Alastair, is that three more words, spoken by Gary Innes, at the end of his remarkable two-part radio documentary, Six Men, are essential to keeping me out of harm’s way. ‘You must talk.’

That’s why talking suicide — to save lives — is at the centre of a new social movement, United to Prevent Suicide, launched in Scotland today.

Towards the end of his book, Alastair tells us more about his life-saving jam jar, a way of thinking about his life which has helped him to live better. He leaves us with a thought which echoes Gary Innes’ words:

‘The key lesson I have learned from the many depressives, their families and friends, and healthcare professionals I have met over the years is the importance of sharing your story, being honest with yourself and with other people and talking honestly about your feelings — because however lonely you might feel, you don’t have to be alone.’

As Professor Rory O’Connor from the University of Glasgow says in the documentary, not everyone who takes their own life has a history of depression and only around 5% of those with depression will go on to do so.

But Alastair’s concluding words speak to me because, like him, I have a history of depression. Like him, I have gradually faced up to the fact that I will never be entirely free of it.

And, like him, I have written about it, partly in the hope that it will help others. As chair of Scotland’s largest mental health charity, SAMH, it’s the least I can do.

Yet writing about it and talking about it, in a help-seeking sense, are not the same thing. I know.

Closing the shutters is so much easier than opening them up. Seeking help is hard, even for a relatively well-off middle-class professional like me.

For those in Scotland’s least affluent communities, who we know are three times more likely to die by suicide, seeking help can be much harder.

For many men, who are three times more likely to die by suicide than women, it can be anathema.

Listening is something we can all do. As the opening paragraph of Scotland’s suicide prevention action plan reminds us, ‘suicide prevention is everyone’s business.’

But as the plan’s first strategic aim underlines, that personal investment is not enough. People at risk of suicide must ‘feel able to ask for help, and have access to skilled staff and well-coordinated support.’

This is not merely a logistical question. As O’Connor says, it is simply not moral to urge people to talk unless we ensure they can be listened to.

Investing in places where people can seek help — local, accessible, available 24/7 — is mission-critical. People need to be able to ask once and get help fast.

Campbell talks in his book about the feeling of despair which underpins his depression. He describes it as ‘hopelessness in both senses of the word’ — a lack of hopefulness and a sense of worthlessness.

If we could hear from the dead, I’d hazard a guess that dual hopelessness would be at the heart of what took them from us. It is more than apt that the local service featured in Innes’ documentary is called Lochaber Hope.

We must be in no doubt too, that things just got much harder. Even before COVID-19, we were living in what the writer, Elif Shafak, has described in her latest book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, as ‘the age of contagious anxiety.’

Now, amid the pandemic, as a friend from New York said to me last week, it is as if despair has become normalised. He and I will likely be okay — materially at least. But the structural consequences for those who were already disadvantaged, are writ large.

I cannot forget the sense of inevitability — fatalism — in the words of the man I used to know. What makes it worse is that I know he had good cause to feel hard done by. And yet he got on with his life uncomplainingly.

I hope he’s okay. And I hope his assumption proves erroneous. As a society we must never accept that suicide is inevitable.

Today, as we so often do on awareness-raising days, we will make a big noise. We will talk a good game. It is right that we should. We must talk. But it is what we do tomorrow, and every day, that counts.

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