How can we reduce the incidence of suicide? This is an ever more pressing question, and not just for mental health professionals. Few of us would be untouched by suicide in our local communities and wider social networks.
Over the past month I have learnt of the heartbreakingly sad loss of two people through suicide, a recent school leaver and a middle-aged man. Something disturbingly common about these two situations is that many people close to them would have had little idea of the extent to which they were struggling.
As a mental health professional, I cannot help but reflect on the following things, and hope that expressing them may be helpful to at least some people experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Life can be very complicated and facing hardship is normal. It is likely that we will feel overwhelmed at certain times in life. If our distress associated with difficult circumstances continues, our focus may narrow. It can be more difficult to see things improving. Under such circumstances, when our thinking is less flexible, we’re more likely to get caught in a downward spiral.
If the stress continues, our lowered mood can progress to depression. The associated changes in a physical and mental functioning, including our brain chemistry, can lead to distortions in thinking. This typically involves thinking more negatively about oneself, about things that happen, and the future. If this persists it’s no wonder that we could feel that we would be better off if we weren’t around, even if that’s a passing thought and we would never act on it.
Many people feel this way at least for a time. I would estimate that approximately a third of adults seeking psychological help have at least some suicidal thoughts. Again, it’s not unusual to have such thoughts if feeling overwhelmed by ongoing stresses. Yet very few people who seek help, even if they experience frequent suicidal thoughts, actually do take their lives.
So the issue is not just about having suicidal thoughts. It’s also about not allowing oneself to become isolated with them. It can make a huge difference to reach out and let someone know, especially someone you trust. This can be a very difficult but extremely important step. It can help counter a sense of isolation and unwarranted shame. Seeking help from a GP or mental health professional can greatly stack the odds in your favour of finding a way through the turmoil to a full recovery, the usual outcome.
I know what it is like to experience severe depression and suicidality. I’ve written about my experience of being hospitalised for depression and the long-term benefits that resulted from eventually finding a way through it. I felt extremely ashamed at first, thinking it was pathetic to have fallen so low when my day job as a senior psychologist in a psychiatric hospital was to help others recover from depression and suicidality. I had my own rigid expectations to deal with. Fortunately, depression and suicidality is not a sentence. I haven’t experienced either in 25 years.
In recent times I’ve seen others acknowledge depression and suicidal thoughts, seek specialised help, and go from strength to strength. In the vast majority of cases people return to being their normal self, usually with something gained in the process.
One thing you can learn when coming through a severe depression is the importance of being more like bamboo than a rock in the face of stress. Watch out for perfectionism. Watch out for harsh self-judgment. Watch out for expecting yourself to be on top of things all the time. Life will serve up circumstances to most of us where this is not realistic. When you are like bamboo, you might feel strong even in the face of a stressful onslaught.
But you don’t have to feel like bamboo. You certainly don’t have to feel as steady as a rock. Sometimes you might just be feeling overwhelmed. If you are feeling depressed or have suicidal thoughts – reach out! Let someone know. There will be support there. Breaking the silence and isolation typically brings great relief. It mobilises supports. When you are depressed you are typically not as alone as you might feel. Reach out. If you feel like that, let someone know.
If you are not sure who you might speak to, a good option is to call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Help is available 24 hours a day.
Footnote: Chris’s book, Synchronicity: Empower your life with the gift of coincidence, has two chapters describing his experience of being hospitalised for depression 25 years ago and what helped for his full and lasting recovery (Chapter 10, “Hell on Earth” and Chapter 11, “Return to the light”). For details on the book, see the website, www.synchronicityunwrapped.com.au.