A House of Lords discussion on assisted suicide started me thinking about the weirdness of debating whether those people who physically can't take their own lives should be able to get help to do so; when the reality is that thousands of people who are physically able to, can and do take their lives each year. In a discussion focussed upon protecting the physically vulnerable it felt as if they were being made more vulnerable by those with power insisting that they can't and shouldn't have the same access to death that others have. The oddness of such an argument stuck with me.
Do I believe everyone has the right to take their life? I think I probably do, but we're looking at this from the wrong end. What's unacceptable is that thousands of people reach a point where they feel that the physical or emotional pain they're suffering is so great that a painful death is better than a painful life, that they have no other option but to end it. One GP at the meeting put his finger on it, there isn't enough resource put into palliative care. Instead of looking at how to help people die we should focus upon on enabling people to stay alive and prioritise and resource this. If we did that properly I believe we could prevent thousands of suicides each year in the UK.
Assisted suicide gets lots of coverage, but plain suicide, the single biggest killer of men aged under 50 in the UK - a more mundane but surely a bigger issue - is ignored.
To an extent, all of the suicide prevention charities collude in a silence on suicide, CALM included. We know there's a rise in certain methods of suicide, but we won't/can't talk about it for fear of more people choosing that form of death. Consequently there is no pressure upon particular industries to make their products safer in order to stop kids killing themselves in that manner, because to talk about the issue would be to highlight it. So our hands are tied. And we can't shout at Amazon who deliver such lethal products to the doors of young people across the world and who send 'we hope you enjoyed your order' notes to the deceased; whose packages are signed for by parents and loved ones and handed on, unwittingly, to children.
But we also can't bear talking about the issue. One argument against assisted suicide put forward in the debate was that it would 'open the floodgates' to those considering suicide. As the SINGLE biggest killer of men aged 20-49 in the UK I suggest the gates are wide open now. We need help closing them. And with even greater pressure upon those out of work and on benefits, I believe the problem will get worse. Talking about suicide isn't the problem, the problem lies in providing help to those who want to live, in allowing those who feel suicidal to talk about it, in supporting them to stay alive. It's no good pretending people, and men in particular, won't talk. Each time we increase capacity on our helpline, the calls come.
The scary thought is that more people, and particularly more men, will continue to take their own lives, but this won't get air time. And because we don't talk about it, can't read it or hear about it, the help won't be there and the message that they matter won't reach them. Talking about preventing assisted suicide feels like fiddling whilst Rome burns. Are we only talking about assisted suicide because the moral dilemma facing doctors is so appalling that they WILL talk about, and oppose, the issue?
Suicide prevention is only really talked about when it involves those who are vulnerable and/or can justify suicidal thoughts, such as children, teenagers, the very old or those who suffer a severe (and ideally life-threatening) illness or disability. Within these groups - and others such as soldiers, prisoners and the LGBT community - the issue of suicide prevention can be raised. But not for anyone outside those categories, not for anyone 'normal', and least of all for men.
Suicide is something we can't and don't want to face. Not unless we've been there ourselves, or someone close to us has died. To think about suicide is, albeit briefly, to think of ourselves there. Like thinking about the death of your child - the thought cannot be borne, even for a nanosecond. We don't want to identify with having an issue so closely bound up with being 'mentally weak'. Losing a leg or an arm is one thing, the thought of losing the very essence of ourselves is too scary a thought. It's the last taboo. I'm sure incest gets more coverage.
In reality we all have 'mental health' problems at some time or another, we all get stressed and overwhelmed, self-medicate on occasion. At least a quarter of all of us have had suicidal thoughts. Talking about 'feeling shit' is an easier door to walk through, and one we've been pushing on for some time. The issue can be tackled as soon as we admit we've all felt shit at some time or another. Once that's done, we can move on and think about what help looks like and how its funded, and stop looking for ways for people to end it all. Wouldn't it be bloody amazing to see a strong campaign for the right, and the resources, to live.