For we’ve had five suicides here in our Valley over the last couple of weeks, alone. Two of those were our young people. And several more of our community died by suicide this last year. It’s a lot for a small community to carry…
Life is fairly quiet, here. Slower than in cities. And so many people are woven tightly into the community’s cloth. So when someone dies, especially by suicide, you can really feel the fray. There’s nowhere for it to hide.
And when it keeps happening, and the sorrow keeps spreading, and the list of loved ones keeps growing, it can start to sound like a bell tolling out the question on everyone’s minds: “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”
And of course, there are no answers. Or, at least, none that will ever be big enough or complete enough to ever really understand each person’s unique grief and pain that led them to their final decision…
And we’re not alone. Some newly-released ABS statistics that show Australia’s suicide rate went up over 13% between 2013 to 2014. And, tragically, as Stan Grant notes here, ABS statistics also show that our Indigenous children are more than nine times as likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous children.
So what are we to do? Any of us touched by suicide, or worried about it, or maybe even contemplating it?
How are we to respond?
To collectively heal all of this and stop it happening?
Perhaps one way is to get to know suicide a bit better. To be able to talk about it together. To outwit the false perceptions that camouflage it and let it thrive underground. To silence the myths that surround it, so we might hear the quieter clues of what’s really going on.
As a psychotherapist and former Lifeline Telephone Counsellor, I’ve been able to explore some of these questions and myths with the wonderful trainers of the Living Works organisation. And I’ve talked with many many people about their own suicidal thoughts, often on the phone in the dead of night, helping them find their way back out of their pain so they could turn things around and embrace life again. So I know this stuff works. Conversations count. Words from the heart can heal – at least enough to stave off a lethal choice that can be made in a moment, and never un-made. Enough so that people then have time to get to the help they need to get through this alive.
After a very passionate local meeting was called here the other night, about how to stop our Valley’s suicide rate, I want to share some of the things I’ve learned. They’re so simple. But they can really help.
First, to the myths.
There’s so many, and they can stop life-saving conversations ever taking place, so let’s debunk some now. Some of the more dangerous ones include:
Myth #1: “If people talk about suicide, they won’t do it – it’s just a cry for help.”
Don’t believe it. Countless experiences tell a different tale. Some people may mention suicide, or some might talk about it often before taking any action. And I’ve personally never understood the, “It’s just a cry for help, so ignore it” idea; why would we not respond to someone’s cry for help?? So if someone you know is talking about dying or death or suicide, listen to that. Take it seriously.
Myth #2: “If people DON’T talk about suicide, they won’t do it.”
Yes, it’s strange how both these completely opposite myths are out there… But they are. And they’re both wrong. Because some people won’t necessarily divulge any suicidal thoughts they may be having. Everyone is different. So it’s important for us to care for one another by looking for other kinds of signs and warnings, too. (More on that soon).
Myth #3: “Talking about suicide will put ideas into people’s heads and increase the chance of them doing it.”
Not so. Many people who’ve contemplated suicide report how isolated they felt at the time; how they thought no-one would understand what they were going through (so why bother sharing it?). Talking about suicide, bringing it up, breaks through that isolation. And lets people know you care about them. Which can be lifesaving…
Myth #4: “If someone seemed down and they were talking about suicide before, but now they’re happy again, they must be over it.”
Again, not necessarily. Some people may actually feel relieved and seem suddenly much happier precisely because they’ve decided to go ahead with their suicide, and may have even decided on a specific plan or date. It’s important to keep supporting them and ensuring they have the help they need.
Myth #5: “If someone is self-harming, they won’t suicide.”
Everyone is different. Some people may explain that their self-harm (cutting, for example) can distract them from their emotional pain. So it’s sometimes suggested that suicide isn’t a threat to people who self-harm. Yet there is also some research suggesting that because of the intensity of the emotional pain they’re trying to escape through self-harming, they are at potentially higher risk for suicide. Certainly, it can’t hurt to help people find new and less damaging ways to overcome emotional pain…
Sadly, that’s just the beginning. There’s plenty more myths where those came from.
And then what?
It can all seem a bit daunting… Frightening, even. So what can we do in the face of all this?
Plenty, actually. Just listening, really listening, is huge. Talking together about what’s happening in someone’s life. Sharing the burdens. Standing with them in their loneliness. Just spending time together. And offering support and connection to other community resources that can help.
Because research suggests that the vast majority of people contemplating suicide don’t necessarily want to die – they just want the pain to stop.
So just sharing that pain for a while, just talking about it, or helping them carry it until they can unburden themselves of it – maybe by connecting with their doctor, or a counsellor, or a suicide prevention hotline – all these seemingly small things can make all the difference.
But when do you talk about it?
There’s a whole range of signs and warnings that are often present (but not always) if someone’s contemplating suicide. They’re usually signs that someone’s in emotional pain.
Some of these might be spoken, like:
- “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.”
- “I just want to end it all.”
- “I can’t take this anymore.”
- “I’ve tried everything and nothing’s ever going to change.”
- “I just feel like dying.”
- “If I died tomorrow, no-one would care.”
- “What’s the point?”
Or some of them might be big, painful upheavals in someone’s life, like:
- Being recently bereaved
- Losing an important relationship
- Going through a traumatic experience
- Losing work or a sense of meaning in life
- Being bullied or harassed
- Being physically or sexually abused
- Living with depression
And how do you talk about it?
Straight up. Don’t be afraid to use the words you mean.
If you’re starting up a conversation, just let them know you’ve been feeling concerned, and why; or that you’ve been thinking about them, and why:
- “I’ve been thinking about you a lot – you’ve seemed a bit down lately.”
- “I’ve noticed ….[what you’re concerned about]… and I wonder if you want to talk about it.”
- “I just want to let you know I’m here for you.”
Or, especially if you’ve heard them use one of the verbal warning signs, like those listed above, you can bring up suicide directly:
- “Does that mean you’ve been thinking about suicide?”
- “When you say you can’t take it anymore, does that mean you’ve thought of taking your own life?”
- “When you say you want to end it all, I’m worried you mean you want to die – that maybe you want to kill yourself. Do you?”
If the answer is yes, that’s the time to really listen and be there for that person. To show them how much they matter to you. To let them share what they’ve been going through. To be with them through the tears, if they come. And to get help.
This might mean calling a suicide prevention hotline or a mental health line with them, or for them, and following the advice they have for you – see below for some resources and options. Or ensuring they see their doctor (and staying with them until they can, unless you’re in danger yourself). Or, if they’re in current danger, call emergency services (on 000 in Australia).
And if you’ve been thinking about suicide yourself, reach out.
Tell someone you trust. They want to know, believe me; they want to help.
Or call a helpline and talk things through a bit.
Or visit your doctor or therapist or your school counsellor.
Just start somewhere… today…
Let someone help you start to turn this story around again and help you find another way out of the pain. You’re not alone… We’re with you, here, in this woven fabric of humanity. You’re a part of us. An important part. We want you here. We love you… So let us listen to you and learn of what you’re going through. Let us help…
International Association for Suicide Prevention – find a helpline in your country
Resources in Australia:
Lifeline 13 11 14 Free telephone counselling, Australia-wide, 24-hours.
Suicide Prevention Australia (02) 9568 3111 Information & resources.
Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467 Free counselling, Australia-wide, 24-hours.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 For young people 5-25yrs, Australia-wide, 24-hours.
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36 The national initiative on anxiety and depression.
Reach Out! Online information and support service for people 16-25.
Headspace 1800 650 890 National youth mental health foundation.
Note: This blog post is by no means a definitive or complete exploration of suicide or depression/anxiety, and is not meant to replace individual medical advice. Please see your health provider and/or contact one of the resources listed above for appropriate care for you and your loved ones.
Text and photos copyright: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar is a psychotherapist and writer who works with people all over the world via Skype, phone and email; and she sees clients face-to-face in Australia. You can reach her via One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also offers subsidised counselling for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience (in Australia).