“Most of us don’t want to change….but what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? Change from the known person to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror….do you recognise the person you were but the person inside the skin is a different person?”
I spoke at the 5th suicide bereavement conference last week. It was one of those events that is somehow uplifting, despite the subject matter and the collective experience of an audience shaped by catastrophe and a common desire to make suicide a rarity, and support for those bereaved a universal offer.
It was an event filled with hope and populated by quietly heroic figures. Bereaved families building hope from catastrophic events that had changed them forever – like Hector’s House for example.
At the event, Author Carla Fine spoke about how death and suicide are not the same thing. Unless you get over the suicide you can’t mourn the death. She also spoke movingly about life before and after suicide and how, following the death of a loved one, you are changed forever. In the aftermath of the suicide of her husband, Carla spoke about the things she had learned in almost 30 years of study and travel. She spoke beautifully about 5 things that you should do if you are bereaved by suicide.They boiled down to a few simple observations that resonated with me:
- Protect your health – look after yourself
- Seek out survivors – being with people who understand is important
- Be with people – don’t lock yourself away when you have friends and family who will understand and be there for you
- Get help – you have been part of a catastrophic event
- Accept you have changed forever – life will always now be defined by the time before and the time afterwards
One of the things that Carla also said was:
“I’ve travelled the globe and there isn’t a place where suicide doesn’t carry stigma”
My talk also included ruminations on my old friend stigma. It was bookended by my blogs about saying yes to life despite everything, and 5 minutes to slay a dragon. Tears flowed, some of them were mine.
In between was a description of how suicide prevention is a priority in West Yorkshire. I’m proud that this is a major part of work in the region and that we will be taking a “zero suicides” approach, based on a trawl of good practice. The presentation was loaded with data from the Confidential Inquiry Into Homicides and Suicides and research from Time to Change, as well as work done by the West Yorkshire team. I will post this when it is available. In the meantime, its worth noting that:
- Only 28% of suicides are in touch with mental health services
- An estimated 90% of people who die by suicide have some form of mental health problem
- Mental health issues amplify the chances of suicide significantly
It doesn’t take a genius to see that we have to ensure that mainstream services are more aware of mental health issues. It is also clear that the stigma of mental health prevents people from being open and from getting the help they need – as seen in the report Stigma Shout from Time to Change. The example below is replicated on many ways when you speak to carers too.
In this environment, lives are lost.Stigma. Fear. They will get us in the end if we are not careful. I covered this in my session. Stigma means that people with mental health issues don’t work or disclose their illness. Stigma stops us talking about the issues we face. We have got to end the stigma.
Time to change are pushing progress on tackling stigma with some success. As I write, they have secured another £20m to deliver their work. This is a source of some joy for me. They feature in my story heavily. My pledge in 2013 to talk more about how mental health issues had affected me and my family led to significant changes in my behaviour and my life. They let me see that, as Nick Cave put it, something so catastrophic had happened that I was changed.I speak regularly in public. I have done so four times in the last week alone. I have, I think, become very good at it and rarely get nervous. But the journey from my brother’s suicide to talking about it openly and personally to 300 people in a packed hall has been the longest and hardest I have faced.
I must have looked as wrung out afterwards as I felt. Sharon McDonnell, gave me a big hug and told me to look after myself.
It was worth it. By opening up and talking about it, I hope that more people will find #TimetoTalk and #TimetoChange. I want to make this a feature of our West Yorkshire plan. Operating at scale will be important and scale can be delivered when many people choose to change at the same time. Perhaps then we can tackle the stigma of mental health and the stigma of suicide. The alternative is that something catastrophic happens that means we are changed – with the continued death of many people and the suffering of their families and loved ones.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we talk, there is always hope, there is help and there is life. Give talking a try. You might just save a life.