Another week, another awareness campaign in the land of social media. Each one bearing a significance with one of us; a subject we are passionate about, having had our lives been touched or irreversibly changed in some shape or fashion. All as equally deserving of our attention as the next. This week its Mental Health Awareness Week as well as Mind and Rethink launching their 'Heads Together' campaign for which they have pulled out the big guns-Royalty no less, as ambassadors, in a bid to encourage people to talk and take positive steps to look after their mental health and wellbeing.
So why am I passionate about contributing to mental health awareness? It would not be my first choice to talk so openly about my story if I am honest with you, but I feel since I lost my dad to suicide three years ago, I have learnt so much about the crippling disease that is depression that I have to pass on what I have learnt. I have written a few blogs now, for Mind and the Huffington Post, and as a result have been contacted by many people who felt my story had resonated with them. I have connected with others that have experienced the loss and I didn't anticipate that. I didn't imagine any good to come of what happened to me and my family. It's been a long slog to get to this point, to stop being a dazed daughter and to begin to recognise that dad was a person in such terrible pain that he needed relief from it, whatever the cost.
Awareness campaigns helps to educate those who haven't had to deal with the issues and by inviting open conversations around mental health it enables those that are suffering to feel empowered enough to reach out for help without fear of the consequences. Well that's the idea anyway. I am unsure if comfort in the form of acceptance would have helped save my dad but I am sure that it would have helped him to know he wasn't going to be judged for having a mental illness.
It has been life changing to connect with these people and listen to their stories. There is something soothing about sharing with those who have asked themselves the same questions as you. I have also had the privilege to spend time with a number of survivors of suicide, people who are relieved they are alive, people who tried to do death and didn't. And what becomes apparent when talking to those people is the lack of sympathy they felt from those around them and the media. The persistent repetition of the idea that you should be physically suffering in some way to be able to justify being unable to cope. Since sharing my story I am blessed to have only received positive responses but sadly I still see responses to others on social media and in the press that aren't so and it is clear that we still have a long way to go with people's perceptions of mental health.
Suicidal thoughts can be so well hidden under big brave smiles, layers of jokes and defence mechanisms. People who want to die are not always the shy recluses, or the ones in obvious pain and trauma. Depression is not a personality defect. Like diabetes or cancer, depression is a disease and it can be fatal if left untreated. My dad was dark, self-indulgent and funny. To me he was extraordinary and his death felt like a door slammed shut. I wish my dad could have allowed himself to imagine something other than dying; I wish he had waited for sunrise, to see if he felt better in the morning light. I wish he was in hospital because he had attempted. Attempted is reasonable, you can talk to attempted over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. But he succeeded and now he has gone.
You may notice that I don't say my dad committed suicide, I say he died by suicide. People commit crimes, and I don't see suicide as a crime. Two thirds of people that lose their lives by suicide suffer from depression, and that's what killed my dad.
In the weeks leading up to dad's death, I did notice a shift in his personality, everything worried him. He talked openly to me about his fears and worries, although he never mentioned wanting to end his own life so upon hearing the news it was like getting a sock in the stomach.
The night we found dad, the paramedic handed us an envelope. Inside was a letter containing messages to my mum, Nan and brother...I frantically scanned for something for me...
The messages were nice. He had written 'I love you', 'please don't be mad with me'. I often wonder what my message would have said.
The only way I can rationalise his decision to leave me out is that my dad and I were exceptionally alike. Stoic and strong-minded. If you ever saw my dad from a distance, you would never have known the demons he was fighting, you'd probably just admire his carefree laughter and childish antics with his grandchildren.
Perhaps he thought that what he had done was weak; perhaps he couldn't address me because he was too ashamed. But his exclusion felt agonising to me.
Let's face it, we are all so fragile. We are all fighting the good fight, but we are too harsh in the way we measure success and failure. Perhaps loathing and punishing ourselves enough to convince ourselves that we will not be sorely missed by every person whose life we touched is a consequence of that. We live in a world where people are not allowed to take time out because they can't cope, so how can we expect to see more open-minded attitudes?
The first year following the suicide was bumpy, one moment I was furious, the next I was relieved he wasn't in anymore pain. I also felt unbearably guilty for not being able to save him.
Suicide leaves you with so many conflicting feelings because it makes no sense. But then depression doesn't make sense. It's a mental illness. But it can be treated. And that's why awareness campaigns like this are so important. Suicide gets whispered about more than it gets talked about but whispering doesn't work. Suicide remains the leading cause of death in men between the age of 20-34 in England and Wales, representing 24% of all deaths in 2013. Invisible wounds are no less incapacitating or dangerous than visible ones and its time we started valuing that.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)