Suicide Prevention Is a Tough Subject for Those of Us Left Behind

10/09/2015 08:52 | Updated 09 September 2016

"How could I have prevented it?"

It's the question every person asks if their lives have been touched by the death of a loved one who killed themselves.

It doesn't matter if you were the distant friend who saw them once a year or the spouse who kissed them goodbye hours before. It haunts your every waking moment.

Every last moment is pulled into sharp focus: the last meeting you cancelled, the fight you had, the phone call you didn't make, the I Love You that stayed inside your mouth.

My husband Rob passed away from suicide this year, a lost battle against a depression that had gripped him for decades.

How could I have prevented it? It is a question I ask myself every day.


In my darker moments, I wonder whether he was always going to have died this way.

Certainly there were signs. He had stood in front of this door many times before. He had even opened it, and stared ahead at what was to come. And for whatever reason, in the past he had turned away - whether temporarily held by our love or holding on to a spark of hope that tomorrow may be better.

On 28 May, he couldn't see the spark and stepped through that door. His light went out and the world was a darker place for it.

Since then, the only way I was going to get out of bed in the morning was by telling myself, like a mantra, that I couldn't have prevented it. That I did everything I could but in the end, it was an illness that was greater than him, and certainly greater than me and all our loved ones.

But where does that leave the people who aren't as ill? But who may be at risk of suicide because they aren't getting the right sort of help? Are we doing enough to help those struggling? And when is the life of another person out of our hands?

After I wrote a blog - a love letter to Rob - about the stigma of mental illness and why I understood what he did, I was overwhelmed by the response from people who had read it. And this is what I have learned.

To those of you with depression and other mental illness, it seemed enough that I understood or at least was trying to understand what people like you and my husband went through.

What seemed hardest for you was that people didn't want to know what you were going through, and in some cases, didn't believe you were suffering. You didn't feel like you were being heard, and so maybe a lesson here in prevention is not for us to tell you what to do but in fact, just listen without judgement.

People who had previously contemplated suicide wrote to me and revealed they had managed to move past it because they had reached out to a loved one for help and got support.

They were also on the right medication and had access to the right doctors. But they were also realists and knew they had to manage their illness rather than pretend it didn't exist. Or, rather, not put pressure on themselves to be 'normal'.

The latter ideology doesn't come from them. It comes from society's difficulty with accepting mental illness to be as real as a physical illness.

I also learned that a lot felt failed by the government and the paltry structure put in place to deal with mental health. And I think that's why I find the word prevention a difficult one. For me, all the love in the world doesn't count unless there's the medical infrastructure to help.

A lot of people whose loved ones had killed themselves told me they felt the resulting shame and anger from their families meant they had to keep quiet. Or that the deceased wasn't mentioned - ever - because it made everyone else uncomfortable. "We are in a club that no one wants to be a member of," wrote one widower poignantly.

Most people are deeply uneasy when it comes to talking about suicide. Self-abnegation goes against every basic human instinct to survive, but rather than understand what could drive someone to do that, the survivors felt society closed their ears in shame.

So part of prevention surely has to be de-stigmatising mental health.

But - we have to be willing to talk about the reality of it too. Living with someone with a mental illness is not always a picnic. Dealing with it in death is no easier.

The truth is that often, you feel like the other person pushed you away. You feel helpless and angry at having no control over making your loved one's life better.

But it's worth remembering that a lot of that tendency - withdrawing from people, from life, is part of the illness. So however much you are pushed away, don't give up.

However where does that leave us, as friends and family who are worried, tired, and fed up with being worried and tired?

I only have one story that might help.

When Rob had a big depressive relapse that resulted in his first stay in hospital, I was almost broken.

The years of supporting him had taken their toll. And I said to my Mum: '"I don't know if I can do it. I love him but sometimes it feels too hard."

She took my hands and looked me in the eye. And she said: "Poorna, think about the Olympics. Why do you think the host country always does so much better than any other time they compete at the Games?

"It's because they have the whole nation cheering them on, roaring their love and support from the rafters. And that is what we must do for Rob. We must be his team."

So to those of you suffering, know that we are there. Know that although it's not easy, although we don't always get it right, please reach out.

And to those of us supporting them remember that - we are their team.

We must stand and be present for our loved ones. Not just when it shines, because truly, the moment when it counts is when it pours so heavily you think you'll never see sun again.

Because the team isn't fickle. The team is the backbone. The team may get angry and frustrated but it never loses faith. And unequivocally, we are in this together, because if we can't win this alone, how can we expect them to?


For Robert Owen Bell, 23 December 1975 - 28 May 2015

If you feel affected by anything you've read in my blog and you'd like to reach out, please do know you can email me. If you need help, there is The Samaritans whose helpline is 08457 90 90 90. Alternatively you can contact Campaign Against Living Miserably who focus specifically on men and suicide, at 0800 58 58 58.