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We need to break the taboo of suicide
12:20pm Wednesday 11th July 2012 in Emma Bird blogs about why she's walking the South Downs for charity By Emma Bird
There are a few things I was hoping to achieve with The Big Em and M Challenge.
Apart from the ultimate goal of raising £2,000 for Winston's Wish, I wanted to get fit, exorcise my brother's death demons and get people talking about suicide.
And that's all happening, just much more quickly than I expected. Especially the latter. Admittedly, we're not talking major political debates here, but the mere fact that Facebook friends are using the words suicide and hanging with apparent ease means that the terminology is going mainstream.
It was about time. Approximately 5,600 people in the UK kill themselves every year and it's estimated that for each successful suicide, another 20 people attempt to end their lives.
It's a little known statistic that suicide is the most common cause of death of young men under 35 and that it peaks again in men in their sixties and seventies. Self-harmers, people with chronic illnesses and people who have lost a friend or family member to suicide are also in the at-risk category. And let’s not forget those who live in rural areas like North Dorset or the Purbecks.
After Matt ended his life, the silence and the isolation were, perhaps, two of the hardest aspects to deal with. Cancer charities abound. People know where to get help and it kicks in immediately after your loved one dies but with suicide, forget it. You're on your own.
The ensuing stress is so severe that it’s often ranked at the same level as surviving the Holocaust. I wasn’t around in the Second World War, nor am I a Jew. Mercifully, I have no concept of the horrors of Auschwitz so I don’t know how accurate that statement actually is.
What I do know, however, is this: the nightmares, the flashbacks, the paranoia, the brain fog and the accompanying psychological pain of suicide grief are so traumatic that on a day-to-day basis repressing it by being busy is the only way to keep it at bay. Then, when you do want to talk about it, you can’t, because the people around you have built an impenetrable wall of silence.
At a time when you're emotionally spent, exhausted and confused and trying to deal with major stress that you didn’t even know existed, it's fundamentally wrong that you have to also scrabble around to find the support you need.
For us, that support came from someone who knew my brother. Unlike most, she didn't come bearing a sympathy card or flowers but the book Dying to Be Free: A Healing Guide For Families. Written by the aunt of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, it's a compact book that actually makes sense. How did my brother's friend know that that was the book we needed to read? Because she has also been granted unwanted life membership to the Suicide Survivors’ Club.
In turn, I've told others about the book. First, I urged an online contact to buy it for her best friend whose younger brother had just hanged himself. Then I gave my copy to one of my students whose dad had hanged himself on the same day as my brother. Last month, the dad of another of my students also hanged himself and only yesterday one of best friends in New Zealand messaged me to tell me her colleague's son had done the same.
And those aren't the only cases I know of. When I was a child, my younger brother and I were friends with the children whose rear garden backed onto ours. Their dad shot himself but we never mentioned it and they eventually moved away, the hole in our connecting fence patched up. Then ten years later, a friend's granddad took a fatal overdose off painkillers. Yet again, it wasn't something ever we talked about.
And, of course, as a journalist, I’ve covered countless inquests where the corner recorded a verdict of suicide but back then it meant nothing more than stuffing for an article. It’s only now that I’m on the other side that I understand the depth of emotions behind those words.
But the suicide that hit me hardest - apart from Matt’s, obviously - was that of one of my favourite students last year. He was funny, ironic, kind, intelligent and brilliant at English. He was passionate about the outdoors and loved mountain biking and rock climbing. Hours before he hanged himself on Good Friday, he emailed me his homework about his favourite holiday. Even now I have difficulty reconciling a piece of writing bursting with happiness with the suicidal person he was.
I didn't handle it well, at all. I was plagued with guilt because not only had I let my brother die, I hadn’t spotted the signs that my student was going through the same psyche ache. Every time that I saw his empty seat in class, I thought about how I – and society at large - had failed him.
That's why we need to break the taboo of suicide. It shouldn't be a dirty word that people do everything to avoid. It should be as common as cancer and people who are depressed or suicidal - and the two don't necessarily go together - shouldn't have to wait weeks to be diagnosed. We need to realise that our emotional health is as important as our physical health.
And we need to realise it soon.
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