It took me 10 years to write about the suicide of my brother – the piece I wrote in 2013 is here and is called Saying Yes to Life Despite Everything. Writing the piece was cathartic for me and the response has been humbling. The blog has been re-blogged, read and shared widely. Friends, colleagues and strangers have shared their stories about suicide publicly in response to it. Comfort has been found in shared experience and perhaps a little hope.
I wrote the piece as part of my pledge to the Time to Change campaign. Approached at the NHS Values summit in 2012, I said I would talk more about how mental health issues had affected my family. It is a pledge I have stuck to personally and professionally since.
Except…..I have never felt able to tell my kids how their uncle died. The stigma, shame and the stain of suicide felt like something I couldn’t put on their tender shoulders. If the subject came up, vague talk of “an accident” sufficed. The tragedy of Phil’s death remained hidden.
In medieval times cartographers denoted dangerous or unexplored territories by putting sea serpents and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps. Over the years, the omission of how Phil died has gnawed away at me and the prospective conversation with my children has appeared on the map of my life with the phrase “Here be dragons” firmly painted over it. The low heft of dread has dragged through the years and the conversation has reached epic proportions in my mind.
I don’t believe in dragons or mythology or fate. I do understand fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of consequences. The irrational white noise that prepares your fight or flight responses and subjugates logic. And just as I have learned suicide is often a consequence of a loss of hope and of feeling helpless, I now know stigma is driven by fear. To end stigma we need to face our fears.
The “Take 5” minutes to talk about mental health campaign is a small positive step in ending the discrimination and stigma around mental health. It provides the permission and support to enter unchartered territory. It will be written off by the cyber-cynics as a fad, a #hashtag badge for the worthy or a promotional campaign. It will also save lives and continue a conversation that we must have if we are to map the world we live in for the 21st Century.
I had signed up to support the campaign on twitter a couple of days ago. I added a twibbon – something i have never done before – and promised myself I would have a chat. I didn’t plan it but left it to emerge.
“How did uncle Phil die” asked my son George today. “Was it cancer? A heart attack?”. We were sitting in a wake and I said I would talk to him about it later. I resolved to use my 5 minutes wisely. Over dinner the subject of Clarke Carlisle came up. Lauren, 12, had heard the story on the radio. We talked about what happens when people become depressed. We talked about losing hope. We talked about mental health. We talked about Phil.
George, 14, looked me in the eye, reached over, squeezed my hand and smiled at me. Questions and answers flowed. The dread sank to the bottom of the ocean. The fear evaporated. The dragon slipped away.
I want to thank Time To Change. It works one person at a time and one conversation at a time. Today it gave me the tools I needed to slay a dragon. It only took 5 minutes. The impact will last a lifetime.