As I sit down to write this the headline news on BBC 5 Live is the death of a nurse called Jacintha Saldanha. Her death is being widely reported as suicide. Why is it headline news? That’s a good question. I very much wish it wasn’t. Not because her death doesn’t deserve recognition, but because nobody but her family and those that knew and worked with her would give a toss if it weren’t for a connection to ‘THAT’ news story. And of course because she just happened to take a phone call which resulted in ‘THAT OTHER’ news story. A story which took up the media and internet baton once everyone had run out of ways to report that a certain royal was pregnant and had morning sickness.
Lots of people kill themselves. Probably more than you think. Whenever I discuss suicide in training, people often struggle to believe that around 15 suicides are recorded in the UK every day. Of course these are official figures recorded by a Coroner as the deliberate taking of one’s own life. With moral and religious taboos, financial implications and family feelings to take into account, Coroners set the burden of proof understandably high to record a death as self-inflicted. The actual suicide figures are quite possibly much higher.
There will of course be a brief outpouring of grief, indignation, speculation and utter cobblers written and spoken about the death of Mrs Saldanha. The armchair psychologists will be bashing away at their keyboards, speculating about people and circumstances of which they know little or nothing. Or if they’ve read about the story in the Royal-obsessed tabloids, they’ll be tweeting, blogging and writing column inches about her death based on some hack’s terror of getting a bollocking from the Editor if they haven’t come up with a thousand words on the ‘KATE NURSE SUICIDE SHOCK!’ story by teatime tomorrow.
In a recent and well judged piece by political commentator Owen Jones, a ‘jumper’ chooses to end their their life by throwing themselves in front of the train Jones was travelling on. As a well known scourge of the right-wing Jones is better known for being the poster boy of my (mainly left-leaning/liberal) Twitter timeline, and the piece was not without highlight of the appalling dismantling of mental health services. But most telling for me was his account of people taking to the internet to moan about their journey’s being delayed by the selfishness of the suicide victim. Why, said the keyboards warriors, could the person not have committed a nice, quiet suicide without causing inconvenience to passengers and traumatising the train driver?
Even the most compassionate among us may look at that last example and think “You know what. Maybe, just maybe they have a point.” Suicide is often described as the ultimate act of selfishness. As well as the many professional and personal encounters I’ve had with those now dead by their own hand, I’ve also worked with those bereaved by suicide. The bewildered ones left behind by a family member or lover who has, like Gary Speed just over a year ago, hung themselves in a garage. And I’ve worked with PTSD sufferers traumatised by witnessing the very last moments of a person’s life which, in the case of a train driver, may be an image he or she will never be able to erase despite years of therapy, anti-depressants or, as is often the case, self-medication with a tanker-full of vodka.
But one thing we can never, ever ask of a suicide victim is ‘Why?’ Even the suicide note is no real explanation. The principal witness is dead.
One thing we do know is that suicide is not necessarily the end game of mental illnesses such as Depression or Schizophrenia. An extraordinarily large number of victims have never been anywhere near mental health services, or (like Speed), given an inkling of their desperation to those around them. A significant proportion of suicides happen in the aftermath of life events.
Failing businesses, failing relationships, redundancy, bullying, bereavement. The stuff of life that craps on all of us from time to time but is usually coped with through time and resilience and doesn’t force us to jump from a multi-storey car park. It’s a quick-fix solution to situations or mental states that few of us can begin to contemplate. Selfish? That’s a very big call when we can never, ever know those final thoughts of the person who has decided to bring an end to their own life.
There are many other myths around suicide. Many assume that Christmas and New Year is a sort of suicide ‘rush hour’. A fatal hell for those whose loneliness (whether actual or perceived) is compounded by the tsunami of happy families and festive warmth thrown at them every time they switch on the telly. That and the long nights are often cited as high risk factors, but if there is any seasonal pattern to suicide we are (in this country at least) more likely to see suicides peak in early Spring than in the depth of winter.
Statisticians, mental health professionals and social researchers have been fascinated by suicide since Emile Durkheim’s famous work from the late Nineteenth Century. We could go on and on with stats and explode many more myths, but pending the Coroners report, Mrs Saldanha is (allegedly) yet another statistic to add to the other five or six thousand people who will kill themselves every year.
She isn’t alive to tell us her story, but the Tweeters, Facebookers, broadsheet columnists and tabloid muck rakers probably won’t worry too much about that. The Daily Mail, which true to form managed a whopping twelve pages of preggers-related drivel almost as soon as the royal foetus was announced will, at this moment, have their hacks chasing anything and everything to do with Mrs Saldanha’s precious but otherwise unremarkable life. But neither they, nor we, nor even those closest to her will ever really know why she chose to end her life, or what thoughts were going through her mind in the hours and minutes beforehand.
Well this isn’t the most cheerful thing I’ve ever written, but if you’ve stuck it out this far, please have a think about three final thoughts:
1) Please don’t assume that everyone about to kill themselves is writing wills and suicide notes, or checking themselves in for an appointment with the GP, or announcing to all and sundry that life isn’t worth living and that their families would be better off without them. Yes, sometimes it works like that. And very often, it doesn’t.
2) Whether it’s Gary Speed, Jacintha Saldanha or the person who jumps in front of a train, please don’t jump onto your keyboard with a handful of assumptions and a degree in cod psychology. Think about those who are left to pick up the pieces. They read the internet too.
3) And finally, please keep these good peoples details to hand. Someday you or someone close to you may need it. It could be a lifesaver.
Tel: 08457 90 90 90