A few days ago, the world lost an incredibly talented human being, Robin Williams. His death has been reported as an apparent suicide, and his mental health and addiction history is being written about by all forms of media, and picked over and commented upon by hundreds of thousands of the general public.
Personally, I did not know Mr Williams other than as an actor, seen on screen, with a rare and awe-inspiring talent to shine a light on the human characteristics of the characters he portrayed. As such, I am not in any position to comment on his life, his death, or his personal challenges. However, I have been somewhat taken aback by some of the comments I have heard and read in relation to Mr Williams passing, particularly with regards to depression and suicide.
Depending on the State, it was illegal to attempt/commit suicide in Australia until the late 19th and early 20th Century. Although the laws have changed, it would seem that the stigma surrounding taking your own life, or even attempting to, remains as strong as ever. From the public reactions and comments to the death of Mr Williams, and recently in Australia, Charlotte Dawson, it appears people who take their own lives are to be judged, ridiculed, despised, denigrated, and generally thought less of. Regardless of well-documented histories of depression and/or other mental health issues, the three main accusations from the general public appear to be “they are so selfish,” “they should have got help,” and “why couldn’t they just ‘get over it’?”
With such high rates of suicide in Australia (see the graphs below), the question needs to be asked – are we doing enough to educate people on depression, suicide, and other mental health concerns?
I cannot speak for all people who consider suicide, or all people who die from intentional self-harm. I can, however, share my experiences, and my thoughts on depression and suicide.
I first wanted to end my own life when I was 12 years old. I had previously thought about ‘running away,’ ‘disappearing’, and ‘becoming invisible’ – from as early as the age of 7 – but the first time I remember wanting to physically kill myself was when I was 12. I wanted to die so badly, on one occasion I even begged my brother to kill me.
Since then, suicidal thoughts have crossed my mind EVERY SINGLE DAY. Many people will read this and think it is an exaggeration, but I assure you it is not. Some days in my life have been spent thinking about nothing other than suicide, and on other days, including most days when I am mentally ‘well’, the thoughts are fleeting and pass through my mind in the same way others might think momentarily about a long-lost friend, or a brief craving for ice-cream. Sometimes, thankfully rarely these days, the thinking moves into action, but for the most part it is just thinking – thoughts that will pass in their own way and time if I pay no attention to them.
According to media and other reports, suicide is most commonly associated with depression, however, I am not sure if you need to be depressed to consider taking your own life. I can only refer to my own experience, and I have certainly not had enough self-awareness throughout all of my life to draw a personal conclusion about the possible links between the two. I do, however, have witnesses who can attest that there have certainly been occasions when the desire to end my life has hit hard and suddenly during periods of balance and relative happiness. The overwhelming veracity and impact of these particular incidents have caused far more damage, particularly to those closest to me, than any suicidal intent that occurs during or after a period of darkness and depression. Most often, though, the severity of my suicidal intent increases as my mental state descends towards and into depression.
“And yet,” you may say, “you are still breathing.”
Yes, I am. By the Grace of God, and the blessing of a handful of amazing people who love me far more than I deserve, I am still here and still breathing. Although they may not comprehend or understand what happens to me internally, they accept me as I am, and help keep me safe from myself when needed.
“How can you be so selfish?”
I seriously doubt selfishness comes into play in any suicide. I am not completely ignorant, arrogant, stupid, or selfish. I know only too well the pain it causes others to know I think about, desire, and sometimes act to end my own life. If there was a switch, button, pill, operation, whatever, that would completely eradicate such thoughts from my mind I can assure you I would do it. As far as I am aware, however, such a CURE does not exist. Counselling, medication, CBT, drugs and alcohol, and a whole other raft of ‘therapies’ do not prevent the thoughts from occurring – they only provide strategies and techniques for managing them, or in some cases may even add to the problem.
One of the most accurate comments I have seen recently is this tweet by @MisterKJW following the death of Robin Williams:
Similarly, telling a person who thinks about suicide to not think about it is kind of redundant. Certainly, telling me to “snap out of it,” “get over it,” or “I’ll never forgive you” does not help – it only adds to the problem and increases feelings of “you’ll be better off without me.”
Self-awareness, for me at least, has been a major factor in living with suicidal thinking and depression. Knowing no matter how intense or how long the desire to end my life is, it is just a thought, a feeling, and it will eventually pass has been the key to surviving. It does not matter if it is an hour, a day, a week, or a month, eventually the desire will pass and life will go on.
Over the years I have developed my own Suicide Alternatives Kit – a list of things I can do to distract myself from wanting to kill myself. Sounds absolutely absurd doesn’t it – to require a plan of defence against your own mind in the same way you might have an emergency evacuation plan, or a plan of what to do if an intruder entered your house, or if a stranger tried to attack you on the street? But there you go, the greatest danger to myself is my own mind.
Although it is difficult, and often others do not want to talk about it, talking about suicide with those closest to me is important. They often become aware I am on a ‘downward slide’ or at increased risk before I do. When I first broached the subject with my partner, however, his reaction was less than supportive. I am not sure he understands any better now, but he certainly acknowledges and accepts, in his own way, that there are times when I am not safe around myself. Particularly in the last three years, it has been the observations of my partner and/or my daughter that have enabled an early intervention approach that has prevented a major incident. There has still been two occasions on which we have been ‘caught out’ and there has been no ‘warning signs’ an incredibly vicious attack was imminent.
On one occasion my partner even took me to the hospital for help, but the fear of the reaction of the people who should have been able to help me prevented me from going inside. I remember all too clearly a time when my mother was doing her nursing training and she told me about having to ‘deal’ with a person who had attempted to take their own life. Although this occurred long before I had the self-awareness or understanding of my own desire to kill myself, I will never forget the anger and frustration she expressed, and how that person had “wasted” their time and resources. Times and society may have changed a lot since then, but these attitudes are still regularly expressed by medical staff, particularly in emergency departments, and encountered by people who, just like me, have a ‘disease of the mind’ that wants to end their life.
Help for me, on that particular occasion, came in the form of Lifeline. More specifically, help came from an incredible stranger who volunteered her time to answer a phone call from a person who wanted so badly not to be breathing. When all of my own strategies to keep safe failed, that voice at the end of the phone saved me. Thank God for Lifeline.
From my own experience, I believe depression and suicidal thinking is not necessarily, if ever, something that is cured – I do however, believe it can be managed, in a similar way that diabetes or other ‘diseases’ can be managed. I don’t believe having suicidal thoughts or depression makes you any less of a person, and it certainly does not give permission to others to judge, ridicule, denigrate, or personally attack you. I would hope that people take the time to think about their reactions, their words, and their actions towards those who are brave enough to share their experiences of depression and suicidal thinking and be more compassionate and less dismissive of these experiences. Take a moment to imagine what it must be like to live in a body with a mind that wants to destroy it!
If you, or someone you know needs help with such issues, the following organisations can provide assistance:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14
- MensLine Australia - 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636
- Kid’s Helpline - 1800 551 800