Acting on our friendships – can we help save lives?
I find this very hard to write. A friend committed suicide three weeks ago. All the communities that he was part of are reeling, trying to make sense of something that is truly hard to make sense of. I have a feeling I will never forget where I was when I found out.
Yesterday I sat on a train reading Simon Critchley’s Notes on Suicide. The train was stationary for over an hour- someone had been hit by a train down the line – the fourth in four months. All men aged 26-56. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. The support organisation CALM started Project 84, named to represent the 84 men who die from suicide every week in the UK.
In looking to understand what happened, I think there are some clues in the strong link between unemployment or a lack of meaningful work and suicide. Being socially isolated, without structure and purpose can be unmooring. It is possible to be around people but still be isolated. Depression or melancholy can lead us to continue to relate to people even while we may be reducing or severing our connection with those people.
There is also a clue in men being three times more likely to die from suicide than women. Whilst it may be a cliché, men do seem to talk less about their emotions and struggles. This involves vulnerability and vulnerability is hard. It is a muscle to develop and work on and not one that is taught in school or the workplace. So what can we do to help those that most need it? Here are some early thoughts and ideas:
- Actively make this a priority. In a world where much of our best time and energy is devoted to GDP work, how can you create time for emotional work, both for yourself and others? We tend to have little left to give outside the workplace, and that goes to our children or maybe our partners. What about our extended family, our friends, our friends’ friends?
- Think about who in your world is having a tough time, even if they are not showing it. Have a list of people you want to actively reach out to, to turn up for, to have a coffee with. Look out for those whose circumstances have changed, or who are self medicating with alcohol or drugs. You do not have to be clinically depressed to commit suicide. Often even those struggling internally can appear on good form in public. There are however always clues.
- Work on your connection with that person; a real connection where there is a meadow of honesty that you can both walk in. Connection comes from being vulnerable with each other. Perhaps share a feeling or something that you are really struggling with.
- You are not there to problem solve, just to be alongside that person and to deepen your connection. In a brilliant video on You Tube, the psychologist Brene Brown talks about the difference between sympathy, which drives disconnection, and empathy which fuels connection. Sympathy starts every sentence with “At least”: “At least you still have your health”. Empathy says, “I don’t even know what to say right now. I am just so glad you told me”.
- Ask, really ask, how they are. Try to push past the platitudes. Don’t be fobbed off by a shrug or attempted humour. Be prepared for a rejection: that is ok. * Could you do something more formal and structured like set up a group, particularly a men’s group, or fundraise or volunteer for CALM or the Samaritans?
- Lastly if someone you know is voicing suicidal thoughts, particularly if they are talking about a specific plan or method, you must contact their family or GP.
It is too early to make sense of my personal feelings about the tragedy of this death. Perhaps I will return to this in a few months. What I do know though is my world has shifted. Looking out for those around me has moved up the priority list, and not just those under my roof. As always, but particularly for this one, I would love your thoughts and comments.
As a postscript, the service of thanksgiving took place after I wrote this. It was gut wrenching to see a church packed with hundreds of people. All I could think was if only he could have seen this, would it have helped? I am left with the clear thought that we can help people see what the church would look like at their funeral, what their eulogy would be. It is called friendship, and turning up for our friends, reminding them why we and others love them, what is special and unique about them, and just being there alongside them in difficult times.
The English view that it is none of our business just doesn’t help here. We have to keep asking the questions, checking in with ourselves, and our people.
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