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To mark World Suicide Prevention Day, in an extremely personal and moving account, a member of the Northern England Mental Health and Dementia Network writes about being bereaved by suicide and why working together is the only way to achieve the Zero Suicide ambition:
In 2017 a total of 5,821 people died by suicide in the UK, three-quarters of whom were men.
When these figures were released earlier this month, they were widely reported as positive progress, with male suicide being at its lowest level since 1981, and the female suicide rate remaining fairly static.
The unavoidable fact, however, is that on average 16 people took their own lives every single day last year, and many more continue to do so. They are men, women and children, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, siblings, cousins, friends and colleagues.
Each suicide leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
The cost to society is more than the death of 5,821 people – it is the ripple effect of this scale of tragedy year upon year, as those left behind rebuild their own lives around their new normal, often with precious little support. Loved ones bereaved by suicide face an increased risk of taking the same path themselves, and are likely to struggle with their own mental health in the aftermath of such a unique traumatic loss, sometimes for many years later.
Progress may be being made, thanks to awareness campaigns and the increasing social acceptance to talk about mental health, but it is scant consolation to those for whom it is too late.
These are words I could have written at any time, and might have thought how terrible it must be to lose someone in such circumstances. But I’ve written them now, and I know how terrible it is.
On 19 April this year, I attended a workshop event to discuss the various mental health workstreams being developed across the North East and North Cumbria, one of which is suicide prevention. I listened to the group talk about the proposed Zero Suicide ambition and how no suicide should be seen as inevitable. It all seemed to make perfect sense.
During the lunch break I went outside to spend ten minutes relaxing in the Spring sunshine, thinking what a beautiful day it was to be stuck inside. And on this glorious day, as I chatted with my friends, 150 miles away in rural Lincolnshire my husband’s younger brother had just taken his own life, seemingly without warning, at the age of 34.
We found out that evening when my father-in-law phoned to break the news. The all-consuming shock of that moment is a feeling that will stay with me forever. The memory is vivid and visceral.
I can picture us on our knees in the hallway, the look of horror and disbelief on my husband’s face as he listened to words I couldn’t hear. I can see myself frantically trying to extract answers from him – “What happened?! What happened?!” – and the sound of me screaming into my hands, clasped over my mouth so as not to disturb our sleeping children, when the words came: “He did it to himself”.
These may seem personal details, but I share them to illustrate the scale of the ripple.
My husband and I are only two people affected by the death of my brother-in-law. At his funeral, a full military affair thanks to his role in the RAF, there were hundreds of people there – family, friends and colleagues – all touched by the loss in their own way, all had to deal with finding out, and all have to move on with their lives. Some will struggle more than others and may need more help as time goes on.
This is the suicide of one person. Now imagine the knock-on effect of almost 6,000 others, year upon year. There is no argument that suicide prevention shouldn’t be a national top priority.
And so to the Zero Suicide ambition: obviously, I have no issue with the ultimate goal of completely eradicating suicide. If the target is not zero, what is an acceptable number of suicides to aim for? I find it becomes a bit fuzzy though when you start to think that suicide need not be inevitable.
In our personal experience, it was unexpected, unforeseen and felt unpreventable. The thought that someone, at some point, could have done something to stop it, and this opportunity was missed, is incredibly painful to contemplate. It is somehow easier to think that it was inevitable, then at least no-one feels responsible for it.
But that’s how Zero Suicide can work: suicide prevention isn’t one person’s sole responsibility. Collaborative efforts across organisations, slowly but surely erasing the stigma of mental illness in society, and coming together to support each other is a step in the right direction to see those figures decline and help prevent future heartache for thousands of families.
It is only by working together that we will even come close to achieving it.