It's that time of year when suicide attempts are at their highest. Spring, according to SAVE (1), is when the figures peak closely followed by fall. There doesn't seem to be any clear reason why this is. What is clear, however, is that suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people aged 15-24 (2) which is more than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.
The other shocking figure is there are approximately 100-200 attempts of suicide for every completed suicide. These figures bring into sharp focus the large percentage of our adolescents and young adults who need urgent support. But no more so than our young men. The statistics from the Office of National Statistics (UK) in 2012 showed that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Photo by David Castillo Dominici
It's very difficult to talk about suicide to others without encountering horror and fear. This must be an offshoot from when attempting suicide was considered a criminal offence. Coupled with what we imagine someone must be feeling to want to take their own life. By writing this article, however, I plan to open the conversation. I come from two angles: firstly, I was a very distressed young adult who often contemplated suicide and secondly, my two sons are between 15 and 24.
My own experience of suicidal feelings stemmed from being raised in a dysfunctional family. Let's not skirt around the subject; I left my childhood with zero self esteem, believing I had no rights, a terror of authority figures and a tendency to live my life solely for others' approval. I got into devastatingly painful relationships which left me feeling life wasn't worth living. One day, while I was driving along the road, a car pulled out from a side road and it crashed into me. Thankfully no one was hurt. However, my buried rage had stopped me from slamming on the brakes and I finally recognised my death wish. I got immediate help and, if I hadn't, I wouldn't be here now.
Let me tell you about one young man who helps others by telling his story - Justin Calabrese (3). Justin is 24, an entrepreneur and an activist for LGBT rights. Raised in Connecticut, USA, he became the focus of a gang of bullies throughout school. Just before he graduated, his backpack had been rifled and his social security number copied, unknown to him, which led to the gang knowing which college he was going to. On arrival at the college, his excitement of finally being free was shattered when he was struck on the back of his head and knocked out. In spite of being taunted he did all he could to focus on his studies and finally graduated with a business degree. However, the years of being bullied and personal family problems had led him to a life of thinking about suicide on a regular basis.
On what Justin's daily life was like whilst feeling suicidal he says,
'It's like 'drowning in you own life.' When I experienced suicide I wanted to do better for myself and knew that better was out their for me, but the negativeness and the thoughts were so strong, I couldn't help myself. I knew help was at the hospital for me, but there was this fog between me and the hospital. I couldn't see my way through that fog. I would cry over simple family arguments or when someone would play 'tough love' with me. Anytime someone doubted my abilities or put me down or called me stupid I would think suicide was the best way out - after all, the bullies made me feel like I was worth nothing. Suicide has always been something that has been in the back of my mind.'
Justin described 'the fog' in more detail:
'Quite frequently I would go through suicidal episodes, which would last about 20 minutes to 1 hour. During that time, I would become verbally abusive, ponder suicide, and even attempt to carry out any premeditated plans to harm myself. I would describe the experience as a 'fog' that would come heavy and quick, linger for some time, then lift away quickly.
During the 'fog' I would become confused with my life (what direction my life wanted to take, how I would achieve my goals and what the future held for me) but when I would try to see the future, I would see myself as a failure. Because my mind was so dominating during the suicidal episodes, I had a hard time focusing on the 'right now moment' and instead focused on 'my whole life in a nutshell'.
During the episodes I would allow my mind to wander and would often think 'what if this...' or 'what if that...' and started playing our scenarios. The only thing that would make me happy was the 'what if I killed myself and then no one would have to deal with me...' scenarios. I would rant and rave about how killing myself with a gun would be easier than waking up in the morning and facing another day of 'hell' and shame. After the 'fog' would lift, I would feel much better - as if the incident never happened. I would think to myself 'why would I ever want to kill myself?'
Justin had his worst suicidal episode in November 2013 when he drove to the local mall and planned to carry out his suicide. He didn't want to be alone so he called his friend and confidante. She persuaded him to get help and finally he did. He spoke to his Doctor and was immediately checked in to a hospital with a professional team to help him onto his recovery. He has been free of suicidal thoughts for over a year.
The pressure on young men is particularly stark. Men's societal norms and roles are changing. They are no longer the stoic bread winner whose response to adversity is to stay silent and strong. Their role is towards a more realistic model of family membership which includes the need to share more openly about how they feel. Men need new rules and role models to replace the outmoded beliefs that men have no emotions and do not need to share. This leaves them open to depression, stress and anxiety. But, the more female trait of talking about problems hasn't yet infiltrated the young male society and they often hit a wall before they are willing to open up.
Unfortunately, for us in the UK, the mental health budgets are being cut at a time when the rates of suicide are increasing. Channel 4 reported in September 2014 having asked 47 acute mental health trusts about their budgets, of the 34 who responded 22 said their funding had been cut, 16 have had to cut their crises team budgets and 18 have taken money away from their community mental health teams. Local government cut backs are also affecting support for vulnerable people A friend of mine who works in the sharp end of a district council said,
'It's heartbreaking when you have to stop funding local community projects knowing that young adults from deprived areas will, from next year, have no one to talk and nowhere to go.'
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, is calling for a fundamental overhaul of how the NHS tackles suicides. He said at a conference last week that many suicides are preventable and wants hospitals to aim to end all such deaths. It's an approach is based on a successful scheme in the US city of Detroit, where the suicide rate among patients in the scheme fell by 75% within four years. 'Suicide is preventable, it is not inevitable', said Mr. Clegg, 'we have to break this hidden assumption that nothing can be done to stop people killing themselves.'
We don't have to leave the care of our young people only to the professionals. We can all play a part in becoming part of a bigger support by becoming the type of person who will listen without judging. We could become a mentor, through a local charity organization, to someone who is looking for guidance. Or, we could give young person a complement, a smile, engage them in conversation or simply acknowledge them with a nod of respect. If we all became a little more aware of the plight of these young adults, and opened ourselves up to be more available as members of the community, we might surprise ourselves on how a little goodness can go a long way.
Justin talks about what to do if you feel suicidal. He says, 'I urge those who can get help to get help NOW. Don't wait until it is too late. Suicidal people should talk to others about their problems and I found that having a 'vent' buddy was great (someone I can talk to and complain to and let my stress out).'
Clegg ended last week's conference by stating 'Suicide is, and always has been, a massive taboo in our society. People are genuinely scared to talk about it, never mind intervene when they believe a loved one is at risk.' He's right and let's hope he gets the overhaul right too.
1. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE www.save.org)
2. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/Suicide-DataSheet-a.pdf
3. Justin Calabrese: justincalabrese.com
Need help? In the UK, call The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. For more support and advice, visit the website here.