Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Suicide isn't painless

On Friday night, my sister's friend took his own life. He left a party after a fight with his girlfriend, and walked down to the lake. The following day, a passerby found his body hanging. He was 22 years old.

The topic of suicide makes me really emotional. I have an Olive Schreiner reaction to it, imaging the heartbreak of the parents who have lost their children in this terrible way. I'm not an expert on young men (and, unlike Celia Lashlie, I don't pretend to be), and I don't like to generalise over the whole male population, but I have known other males who have suffered through depression in complete silence, or have committed suicide without any warning. For what it's worth - and you blokes out there might disagree - I think the difficulty many males have talking about their mental and emotional wellbeing is a huge and urgent issue in men's health.

Some months ago, I read with absolute horror a small article in the paper, in which a coroner made a public comment about the suicide of a fourteen year old boy. The boy had been dumped by his girlfriend and was unable to cope. The problem, according to the coroner, was that we don't raise our kids tough enough - if we did, they wouldn't fall to pieces over things like relationship break ups.

This comment floored me. For a start, I don't believe the coroner would have said the same thing of a girl who had committed suicide under the same circumstances. His comments were an insult to the boy's parents: you raised him wrong, he wasn't man enough, this is partly your fault. And I wondered as I read the article, what wouldn't that boy's parents give to have had their child not act tough, not suffer in silence, but rather tell his parents how he was feeling so he didn't feel so alone?

In my Olive Shreiner moments, I look at my daughter, and know that she can and will tell me what's on her mind as she grows up. But when I look at my son, even though he's only little, I can't be so sure. I just hope the wee guy grows up in a changing culture which doesn't regard talking about emotions or mental health as a sign of weakness in men.


stephen said...

I feel the way you do, Anna. And that coroner's comment was precisely the wrong thing to say. The feeling that your emotions of sadness and despair are unmanly and that you ought to be able to master them are motivations for suicide.

Russell Brown said...

In the repackaged mental health campaign featuring John Kirwan (disclosure: that's my voice you hear at the end saying "Don't let depression get the better of you, or someone you love ...") he relates how a so-called mate advised him to "harden up".

"Harden up ..." JK muses. "That's about the worst thing you could do."

So, yeah, even by the occasionally crazy standards of coroners, those comments seem to verge on a breach of professional standards. The boy's parents would have been well within their rights to demand the man be disciplined.

lenore said...

my brother committed suicide when he was 22 years old and looking back now, it was not just the drugs frizzling his brain, but he had depression which back then would not have even been thought about. A number of young guys I knew took their lives, jumping off viaducts, hanging themselves or more subtly, crashing their cars into hard walls.

It saddens me also that twenty something years later, we get comments where young men are told to "harden up" and will continue to feel it is not ok to talk about their feelings

On the positive note, I know many young men who are really comfortable discussing their feelings and certainly my hat goes off to many secondary schools as they really try to encourage our young men to open up

Anna McM said...

I'm so sorry to hear you lost your brother, Lenore. I think (or at least hope) that there is a bit more sensativity to the fact that drugs and/or alcohol and depression often go hand in hand. I do think that things have improved re men's mental health (JK has done a great job), but no doubt there is a way to go.

EkimdaBrave said...

Firstly, disclosure, I have a mental illness.
I have Depression, the illness, and have had for all of my life.

However, I am mentally tough. I must be to have made it to almost 40. (heh, yet another 'mid-life crisis' looming!)
So, yes, telling someone, especially a friend who is crying out for help, to toughen up, is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
However it is the era that I was brought up in.
Even in my darkest hour, when I felt totally trapped, and my mind was racing through four options, one of them suicide, it was NEVER a viable option.
Mental toughness is a different concept and it saved my life
Mental toughness gave me an absolute backstop for the place that was worse than the deepest depression.

Anyway, it was a long road back, and one of the first things I had to learn was the language to express how I felt.
You ask a male "How are you feeling?" and really try and drill down to how they are feeling, at their core, and it will be an extremely difficult thing for them to express.
Imagine how terrifying that is when you're depressed and on the edge.
Getting help was another tough thing, knowing who to go to.
In every case, you should start with your GP and/or your partner.
Your GP cannot and will not turn you away. If they do, then your new GP won't!
Also, I think that females have a much better grasp of feelings, which, in theory, should make it easier for them to reach out much much earlier in the cycle.
Perhaps that's why the suicide rate is higher for young males...

A death is always tragic, my heart goes out to the young man's family.
To the parents; It's not your fault.
P.S. yes, I did recover. There is always a way out.
You CAN change, and so can your situation.
There is always hope.