Back in the summer, I tuned in to Newsnight for an item about an NHS Trust where 8,000 people in touch with mental health services died in three years.
My daughter was one of the 8,000. Whilst watching the programme, I wondered what I would have thought if I hadn’t been personally involved in these tragedies. I’d have been shocked, definitely, but not necessarily touched. They would have been other people’s stories. “Suicide is everyone’s business” is not my phrase, but one used by Stephen Habgood, Director of MFC, in a discussion following a webinar we co-presented. To which most people might think, “Why would anyone want to think about suicide?” There are enough dreadful things happening in the world that I know about because I have a TV, a radio and a smartphone. They are inescapable. Suicide is indeed dreadful, but it wasn’t going to affect me, or so I thought. No need to go there. By the law of averages, it wasn’t going to enter my life. But I also thought I wasn’t going to have to deal with it because I wasn’t the sort of person it happens to. What was I thinking?
When your children are born, the overwhelming joy you feel is accompanied by a fear you’ve never felt before, the fear of losing something this precious. You know that the fear is never going to go away. It’s the permanent and constant accompaniment to the joy; the two feelings will co-exist, because the strength of the joy is matched by the strength of the fear, and you can’t have one without the other. Take away the joy and you take away the fear. You know the dangers your child will face. You know they can get ill, they can die in an accident, they can be attacked and murdered, they can become alcoholics or drug addicts.
But not for one second do you think they might take their own life. And the reason you are convinced they will never do that is because people who take their own lives are unhappy. Your child is not going to be unhappy though, because they will not grow up in a war zone, they will not be poor, you will make sure they are cared for and looked after, and they will imbibe the happiness that you feel because of their existence, and of course, you will not neglect or abuse them which is, you believe, the main cause of unhappiness in children and teenagers, and that’s not going to happen in your house. Your child is lucky to have you as their parent because you are going to keep them safe, and whatever happens to them in the outside world, they can always return to you for refuge and comfort. You’ll always be there to tend to their wounds when they’ve suffered one of life’s inevitable setbacks. You can’t control the external threats; you just have to keep your fingers crossed. But as for the stuff that happens inside your family, you’re definitely in charge of that, so nothing is going to go wrong there.
Or so I thought.
The problem is that although suicide is everyone’s business, we treat it as if it is everyone else’s business. How do we convince everyone (no exceptions) that it is their business? Who are the people that matter, and how do we reach them? The people who matter are the ones who are not yet dead, and perhaps more importantly, the ones who are related to or friends with the ones who are not yet dead, as they are the ones who could prevent the unimaginable.
Sadly, these people do not know who they are. They cannot be identified. The only answer I can think of is that we must talk to all parents. All parents must be made aware that, however absurd the likelihood might seem to them, their child could do what my daughter did. Is it worth talking to 100,000 people when 99,999 will probably never be affected (Note – I’ve made those figures up; they may be too optimistic or too pessimistic)?
I can’t bring myself to say “No”. Listening to the stories of those left behind may be irrelevant for the majority, but the majority don’t know who they are. Not listening is deliberately looking the other way, pretending it has nothing to do with you, putting your hands over your ears and shouting, “No, no, no, go away.” It’s tempting and a completely understandable default position. I know. It used to be mine. But it won’t make any difference.
If you can find a way of removing your hands and listening and being prepared to accept the possibility that fate might not be on your side, then it’s worth it. Fate might be against you, even if you do not know it. Suicide is, I am now convinced, not just everyone else’s business.