This year marks 20 years since my sweet, funny, dearly-loved uncle died.
Feels like yesterday. Feels like a lifetime ago.
I can’t not smile remembering his laugh. And it’s hard to think of him laughing without thinking of Dad at the same time. To me they looked quite different, but I could also see their uncanny resemblance, and how it was that he and Dad were always mistaken for one another.
They told the same jokes and finished each other’s sentences. I think I felt close to Uncle Michael by virtue of his closeness to Dad. He used to call me Jelly Bean King – Dad called me Jellybean when I was a baby and it stuck for a good while, Uncle Michael embellished it so that with Billie Jean King tennis champion and household name back then, Jelly Bean King it was. Only he called me that.
His death was unexpected, incomprehensible, shocking.
I have always said that if I had to write a list of 50 ways he might have died that day, it would not have occurred to me to include suicide.
Yet how can that be – how could such a common cause of death not occur to me?
Denial is dangerous
Swimming pool drownings remain the biggest killer of children in Australia under the age of four years. The law demands fences around pools and resuscitation information be visible. We know we must supervise our kids. The ads remind us. Swimming and safety are taught in and out of schools. The lifesavers at our local pool wear t-shirts that read: Where is your child now?
In Australia about 51 people kill themselves each week (based on 2016 ABS statistics for the five previous years). It is a common cause of death and for many age groups, it is the most common cause.
No ads, no t-shirt slogans, no regulations. We don’t know the risks or prevention strategies. What’s safety and how do we do it?
Let’s face it, on some level, we don’t want to know. We don’t want to know about what we struggle to comprehend and accept. We understand the potential drowning of a child as an accident, something we can take steps to prevent or that we can respond to decisively. Suicide is different – it calls into question someone’s mental health and we don’t know what to do with that, it scares the hell out of us.
Suicide has a powerful presence in our semi-consciousness. It is a societal black cloud. While we would run to the aid of a small child teetering at the edge of a pool, we back away from someone whose mental health is in doubt…it makes us feel helpless, unsure, afraid.
But is understanding so difficult?
If you dare, it’s not such a stretch to imagine how someone finds themselves feeling suicidal.
Think of a time when you were worried, really worried. Recall how it consumed you, ruined your sleep and your appetite. A prolonged, severe episode of this is something like what a person with anxiety experiences. Their brain and body stalls in that life-threatening-like state, full of fear and dread. It’s not such a stretch to imagine it.
Perhaps there was a time when you couldn’t shake a low mood, whether because of a situation or without any discernible reason. You were stuck there with a numb, detached sense that prevented any joy from the things that would normally please you. It robbed you of your usual self, your capacity for energy and feelings.
A heavy, suffocating depression is like wearing whole-body-and-mind grey-coloured glasses that can’t be removed. Can you imagine?
Or maybe you remember an experience when the critical voice in your head was piercing, mean, destructive. It told you nobody values you or cares, you’re crap at everything. You couldn’t help but hear it, and hear it again, until you flew into a rage, retreated into yourself, or drank more than usual.
You can imagine if the voice never let up, just got louder and more malicious.
The pain is real. With physical pain you seek and are offered medical treatment, and care and support from others. With mental pain there is still stigma, ignorance and fear.
Our judgement and withdrawal increases the suicide risk amongst us. Greater awareness and understanding will save lives.
Suicide Life Saving – Step 1
Of course I wonder. What if my uncle had been able to say he had suicidal thoughts? What if we had known to ask him?
It is the gravest misconception that asking will make it worse. That it will give them the idea or push them over the edge.
Asking is a gift.
A brave gift that cuts through the silence, shame, loneliness. It offers hope. Maybe they can speak up. Maybe they can be understood. Maybe they can get help.
If you can ask, you may one day save a life. If all of us can ask, lives will be saved.
Try these questions
“Do you ever think of ending it all?”
“Does it get so bad that you want to kill yourself?”
“How bad do your thoughts get – do you think about harming yourself?”
“Does it get so painful that you think about ending your life?”
“In your darkest moments, do you think about suicide?”
“Do your worst thoughts include a plan for killing yourself?”
What you might hear
“Hell no but thanks for asking.”
“Sometimes actually, yes.”
“No, but I do fantasise about my funeral.”
“Yep, I’m not there yet, but I know how I’d do it.”
“Yes but I wouldn’t do it.”
“I guess I do.”
Try these responses
“Let’s get you the help you deserve then.”
“You wouldn’t limp around with a broken leg, let’s get you home/ to the doctor/ the hospital/etc.”
“You don’t have to stay in this much pain, what should we do next?”
“I’ll call work and let them know you’re unwell.”
“I’m glad I asked and I’m glad you told me, I’m going to call and get some advice.”
(With a hug or hand) “Ok let’s work this out.”
Try these sources of help
Lifeline 13 11 14 (in Australia)
Mental health practitioner
Online info: Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue, etc
EAP (employee assistance program)/ HR/ student counselling/ chaplain, etc
Why not start the dialogue? Give it a try, practice talking about it. You’ll reduce awkwardness, stigma, helplessness – yours and others’. Ask a close friend if they’ve lost anyone to suicide. Ask a loved one if they’ve ever in their life thought about suicide.
Enough ignorance and denial, let’s start talking now. Let’s start suicide life saving.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them below or get in touch with me. For more about learning about depression and anxiety and reducing stigma visit PROP (People Reaching Out to People). And if you yourself are struggling right now, please get help or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (in Australia).