Content warning: this post discusses suicide and suicidal ideation. Please proceed with caution. I provide resources at the end for where to go if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and impulses.
It’s 9AM on the 10th of September. Five months and three hours ago, my husband Kieran sent me and our daughter a very sweet voice note via WhatsApp. She and I were still asleep; I am quite sure he chose the time he did because he knew our daughter would normally not wake me up until about 7 o’clock, and I wouldn’t usually turn my phone on until a little while after that. He connected his phone via bluetooth to a speaker in the garage, and set it to play some of his favourite music. Our neighbour’s CCTV records him going into the garage and not coming out.
Statistically, one person in the world dies by suicide every forty seconds. In the moment that Kieran died, it’s likely that someone else’s death by the same means overlapped with his; another person beginning to die as his life ended. Over 700,000 people die each year by suicide, 77% in low and middle income countries. Here in the UK, 18 people die by suicide per day; most of them are men under 45. Kieran was six weeks away from his 39th birthday.
Those statistics are terrible but also abstract. I can relate them to the death of the man I loved, but still, 700,000 is a number too big to personalise. It’s so easy for suicide to still be something distant, a problem for other people: until it visits you at home.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, and there are lots of organisations providing information and resources about what we can do – as individuals and as societies – to help prevent death by suicide. I will provide some resources at the end of this post. But I am not an expert in suicide prevention; my experience is of having had several friends who have experienced ideation and survived suicide attempts, and then losing Kieran. I can’t speak with authority on how to prevent suicide, though I would say very firmly we need less talk about “reaching out” and more talk about the grave erosion of our mental health services.
Instead today I want to talk to you, a person who is experiencing or has experienced suicidal ideation. I am going to call you my friend, even if we’ve never met. I hope that’s alright. I don’t know your situation, your gender, your sexuality, your family situation, your mental health history. I am not going to give you platitudes that everything will be alright, that this too shall pass. I know that often, dear friend, you will have experienced ideation before, and while so far if you’re reading this you’ve survived those experiences, I know that each time it happens it can feel like it chips away at your inner reserves, and sometimes at your very self. As far as I know, Kieran only once before experienced a period of active suicidal ideation. That was way back in 2013. But I think, from the letter he left me, that the thought of having to build himself back again as he did that year was – for all kinds of complicated reasons – too much.
Perhaps you feel like that at the moment, or you have done in the past. You are not a bad person, or a weak one. We still use too much of the language of the battlefield to talk about struggles with mental illness. I can imagine you, friend, looking at your own life and thinking that you don’t fight your illness, you don’t show courage in the face of it. This language makes you feel like a failure and a coward, and it can make you think again – maybe it would be better if I’m dead. Kieran called himself a coward near the end, and it makes me so very sad to know that he thought of himself that way. If cancer ate up my body, I hope you wouldn’t say I was a coward if it killed me; I hope you wouldn’t say I was a coward, either, if I didn’t always carry that illness with saintly good grace. The disease that you have is like a cancer, I truly believe that. I have seen the way the desire to die consumes a person from the inside until they feel like a shell. Perhaps you, friend, have looked at the hollow places inside yourself and thought – this worthless thing that I am doesn’t deserve to live.
I’m not here to try to persuade you that you’re wrong. I know Kieran was wrong, and I also know that I wasn’t able to change his mind. Perhaps with a lot more mental health support, perhaps if he’d had different treatment way back in 2013, perhaps if all kinds of other things had happened his illness could have been cured. I am here to say instead that, as far as I can from not having lived in the ideation zone myself, I understand. I do. I do, and I love you. Someone once said “grief is love with no place to go”; what I can offer is a little of that love that Kieran no longer needs but which I can’t help giving him. I see you and your pain, and I love you.
In the couple of days before he died, Kieran refilled all the bird feeders in our garden. He did all the laundry in the house. He had been signed off work sick for five weeks by that point, and together we had come up with the idea that every day he do one creative thing, one household job, and one bit of exercise. I also now know that while we were thinking up these plans he was also quietly researching the best way to die, and setting up the things he needed to accomplish that. I will never know if he did those little jobs that week in a last desperate effort to keep his head above water with normal things, or if he saw them as a way of setting things in order before he died. I don’t know if him emptying the washing basket was an attempt at distraction or if it was a sort of gift to me – one less thing I would need to do. I don’t know. I will never know. I know that he told me himself several times that he had no plans to hurt himself, but he did. I don’t think he was lying, in the sense that I don’t think by this point it was still a choice for him. I don’t think you are a liar, when you tell your loved ones the same. That’s the thing about what Dr Richard Heckler calls the suicidal trance. Unlike all the “awareness raising” campaigns that suggest that all people experiencing ideation need is a person to ask them how they are doing, a person in this stage of contemplating suicide is trapped within a closed system. They may be able to interact very normally with the outside world. Do you have a mask, dear friend? I am guessing that you do. It may be pasting on a smiling face, so even the people you love don’t know how badly you feel. It may be just carrying on efficiently with all the tasks you need to do, and the acquaintances you interact with not realising that you’ve become detached from deeper personal connections, so there’s no one who can spot your pain. It may be a mask of anger, one where you have pushed away everyone in your life who might have known what drives you now isn’t rage but despair. You put this mask on long ago as a shield, I expect. Now it’s suffocating you.
I also know that even if you manage – with extraordinary strength, really, given how intensely you feel compelled to die – to ask for help, that you may well have been failed. I know, dear friend, that you may have been given only a short triage appointment with a harassed mental health nurse, who gives you a faded print out where you’re encouraged to write a safety plan. How do you start doing that when you’ve forgotten how it feels to be safe? I know that so often you haven’t been given enough help to get through this. If I once again was a hypothetical cancer patient, would you think I was weak if, when I went to my oncologist, instead of a treatment programme I was given a prescription and told to look at some websites, and that made me feel despair? Your feelings of abandonment are valid. You have been let down.
I can’t promise to save your life, dear friend. What I can say is this. Those of us bereaved by suicide never, ever want other families to go through our pain; we never, ever want anyone else to go through the pain our loved ones felt before they died. We, I, want to help you. We know a lot more now about the signs to look out for, as well as the resources that you need. We will campaign for better mental health provision, we will raise “awareness” that goes beyond sticking a virtual sticker on our facebook profiles or lighting a candle. We will make people who are privileged enough not to know about suicide, listen to us talk about suicide. And I promise that if this is a disease that ultimately kills you, I will never, ever say you were a coward, or selfish, or weak. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope in reading this, you can push back a little of that overwhelming pain that makes you feel so alone. Because you aren’t. Those of us who love the dead can love you too.
If you or a loved one are in crisis:
Call the emergency services if someone has made an active threat of suicide, or if you feel actively suicidal. You are not wasting their time. This is a life-threatening emergency.
Find a helpline – this link provides connections to over 1400 worldwide services.
While talking doesn’t fix everything, talking in the right way about suicide can help, and even save lives. The Samaritans give good advice here.
What you can do to help reduce the risk of suicide globally:
Participate in IASP’s Creating Hope Through Action campaign.
Contact policy makers in your country to address failures in mental health services.
Join campaigns to decriminalise suicide in countries where it is still a criminal offence, as criminalisation of suicide does not reduce death rates but does make it less likely for people to seek help.
Read about suicide and talk to others about it to reduce stigma, which can be a major barrier to seeking help, and can also make life more difficult for survivors of suicide and survivors of bereavement by suicide.