Whilst there is an undeniably huge amount of work that still needs doing, it does seem as though it’s never been easier to have open and frank conversations about mental health than it is today. Despite this, for the first time in five years the UK has suffered an increase in suicide rates - with a reported 686 more deaths in 2018 than 2017. A bleak statistic to begin this article with, certainly, but a very important one. With the emphasis firmly on ‘prevention,’ however, let’s discuss just how we as individuals and a society can do our part to reduce such figures for good.
I’ll be posing a few crucial questions to Jack, one of MAG’s co-founders, for whom the topic is rather close-to-home. Hopefully his answers can help us all in learning how to be a beacon of support and hope for those struggling with suicidal thinking, how to seek support if you are suffering such thoughts and how best to move forward if someone you know attempts or succeeds in committing suicide.
The subject of suicide is an immensely complex and fractious one to navigate - needless to say, however, I thought that sitting down with Jack - who unfortunately has more experience with it than the average person - would be a good person to talk to in order to gain some valuable insights on the matter.
Q: To start with, what do you think can change in the way society currently talks about suicide?
A: ''Well, I think the way we talk about suicide and its prevention are two different things. One aspect of the way we talk about suicide in society that I find really tough is that it’s still not necessarily respected as a really traumatic event; it’s often assumed that people who are weak – who can’t handle life – take that route. I don’t think that’s a fair representation. In my experience with it - from having ideation myself at points in my life to having a close friend commit suicide, as well as having friends who’ve suffered ideation or urges and come to me and haven’t followed through - I think what links them all is that none of them are weak-minded. It’s situational, and society needs to see that situation has, probably, an infinitely bigger impact than genetic predisposition or a mind that’s too ‘weak’ to handle the difficulties of life. I don’t think that’s what it is.
In terms of preventing it, I think the first step would be having an open and aware culture in which people respect that this is a thing you’re going through right now, and ask: “What is your story? What is your case of this?” We shouldn’t treat it as a blanket thing where your suicidal ideation is just like someone else’s – because it won’t be. The reasons won’t be the same, the people in your life won’t be the same, the contributing factors; nothing is going to be identical, so why treat it that way? We wouldn’t do it with certain other medical conditions that are so obviously unique to the individual sufferer. However, I think it’s going to be hard to truly prevent it without some real systemic changes that go beyond the mere ability to discuss it openly – legislative changes would be required. But if we’re simply talking about how we approach the subject then it’s just that: to be more open, treat everyone as an individual case and respect their story.''
Q: Can you pinpoint any warning signs for suicide that people might exhibit?
A: ''Warning signs are definitely a tough one, because everyone responds so individually to suicidal thinking – some people cry for help, whilst some people really shell-up and detach from everyone. But I think the one consistency (that I’ve personally seen, at least) is someone detaching from the meaningful relationships in their life. They’ll still be going to social events because they believe they should be able to – that things like that should make them feel better – but they don’t. The warning sign comes when they begin to give up on trying, detaching themselves from those who are closest to them. And, at least in my case, the detachment stems from the fact that you don’t feel like you’re connecting with them on the same level anymore, and that feeling emerges from the place where the ideation sits. It’s the effect that it’s having on you that makes you see things that aren’t there. It makes you hear snide comments, that aren't intended that way; makes you view the world in a negative light, because that’s the negative space your mindset is in.
I think the only consistent warning sign for a close friend, then, is that they’ve likely already told you they’re going through a tough time, and then at one point you’ll notice they stop doing that. How they personally react to their struggle with suicide beyond that will be very individual to them, but one thing that has (in my experience) stayed consistent is that separation from meaningful conversations with close friends or family.''
Q: If one finds themselves on the other side of the scenario – battling suicidal urges personally – what do you suggest is the best approach to seeking help?
A: ''Firstly, I’d say that there’s a stage you hit before the suicidal urge; the ideation is definitely when you should start getting help, if you weren’t already. I think talking to a professional (I know it’s a classic thing to say, but it’s so true) - someone who is trained in these issues and knows what the commonalities between brains that go through this are – is equally important to chatting with the individual who knows you best; the friend, the family member, the parent. Whoever it might be that can talk to you on an individual basis. I think you need both of those; the objective opinion and the subjective opinion. And they can really stabilise you. Not necessarily get you out of it, because again I think that’s very situational, but it can certainly help you try and stay stable; the best thing to do, in my opinion. Particularly when I was dealing with it myself, it was the fact that anything could topple me which was most crippling. You don’t feel like your life is stable at any point. And after six, seven, eight months that becomes a real drain on you. So finding that stability with people whose opinion you can trust in, even if you don’t necessarily feel it, is very important when finding yourself battling an ideation or an urge.''
Q: Examining the figures, there are a disproportionately large number of male suicide victims in the UK (75% of them in 2018). Why do you think this is and how do you think it can be tackled?
A: ''Yeah, I’ve seen that statistic and it definitely aligns with my personal experience and those who I know. I think it comes down to this culture that we have of toxic masculinity in which men can’t discuss the issues they’re having. I don’t believe men and women experience anything inherently different in terms of mental health issues – the difference is in how they are allowed to deal with them. A man going to a therapist is judged much more harshly by men and women than a woman going to a therapist. A man chatting to his friends about mental health issues may be laughed down or joked about for showing a vulnerability in a way that – at least stereotypically – a woman within a group of women won’t be. It’s notable, though, that whilst there is a higher rate of successful suicides amongst men, women are actually around three times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetimes. That’s something I don’t think gets discussed enough.
In the end, I think the inherent view that many still hold that the man has to be the strong household member just isn’t true in our society anymore; the line is becoming more and more blurred. And in my opinion that’s a great thing, that the border between male and female gender stereotypes is growing much more grey. That’s fantastic. But it can alienate those who do still see it from a more black-and-white perspective, and it can make them feel even more alienated than they did before.''
Q: It’s clear that there’s a lot of work to do before the issues you’ve addressed can be truly overcome. If the worst happens and somebody we know does attempt, or successfully commits, suicide, do you have any advice on coping with the aftermath?
A: ''I think it depends very much on how you react to it. At the time, for me, I was sixteen and I wasn’t equipped with the emotional maturity to deal with that. I think if it happened to me today - due to the fact that I’ve lived through it once, and also due to the lessons you learn over years – I think I could probably handle it better. But I believe the main thing would be to talk to professionals and people who know you; the mechanisms that prevent suicide itself can also prevent you from collapsing because of it. It’s a heart-wrenching moment; one that I think can often be more painful than, say, a terminal illness of a family member, because with that you know it’s coming, to some degree. Often with suicides you don’t – they’re so out of the blue.
I fell into a very deep spiral where I didn’t hold myself together and my academics dropped and social life too, and I think all I needed to do was accept that I did need the help. Even though you haven’t been physically harmed by it happening, it’s okay to accept that you need help with it – especially if they were a close friend or a family member; someone you felt tied to in some way. It’s really important to get yourself seen and discuss your emotions and thoughts around it. I think the feelings of confusion can stay with you for so long after something like that, and you need to be able to talk to either a close friend or a professional. Ideally, chat to both.''
There are many avenues of support that you can seek out if you or anybody you know are suffering from suicidal thoughts or urges. Aside from talking face-to-face with a professional or seeking support from friends and family, please remember that the wonderful folks at the helplines below are there to offer support to anybody who needs it.
Samaritans: Call on 116 123, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM): Call on 0800 58 58 58, open from 5pm to 12pm every day. This is a hotline tailored to men.
Papyrus: Call 0800 068 41 41 or text at 07786 209697, open from 10am to 10pm (Monday to Friday), 2pm to 10pm (weekends), 2pm to 5pm (Bank Holidays). This is a hotline tailored to people under 35.
Childline: Call 0800 1111, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is a hotline tailored to children and adults under the age of 19.