Suicide remains a major gender and social inequality and is a devastating event for families and communities. There were 6,708 suicides in the UK and ROI in 2013. In 2013 22% of contacts with Samaritans UK (more than 600,000) involved individuals expressing suicidal feelings
The male suicide rate is the highest since 2001. The suicide rate among men aged 45-59, 25.1 per 100,000, is the highest for this group since 1981.
Just over a month ago Poorna Bell, Executive Editor of the Huffington Post UK, lost her husband to suicide. This is her letter to him.
In the end, there really is only room for love.
My dear husband,
It has been nearly 30 days since you held the spark of your life between your hands and pressed them shut.
Since then, I have been trying to make sense of the world.
In Hinduism – a religion you wholeheartedly set about getting to know even though I had long lost my faith – we have an 11-day ceremony and a 30-day ceremony.
I’ve never understood what these were for. But perhaps they are to mark a set of realisations.
By 11 days, I was aware that your death had made me a different person.
Everything looked, smelled and tasted different. People that I had known for years now seemed like strangers in the midst of what I felt, and what I thought they could not possibly know about.
I saw you in everything. I saw you in the sea, imagining you in the shift, turn and swirl of water. I saw you at your graveside, in the freesias you so loved. I saw you in the birds you had encyclopaedic knowledge about, in the double rainbows that lit the sky the day we said goodbye to you.
You were a big, Kiwi man in real life, and yet I saw you in the most delicate of things.
I wondered about whether to write this to you, in such a public way. But I think considering how much we talked over the last year about mental illness and how strongly we felt that not talking about it in society contributed to the sense of shame and stigma that surrounds it, I know you’d want me to do this. (I find myself doing that a lot: ‘I’m sure Rob would want me to eat that extra bar of chocolate’ and other such important life decisions).
I know it because you felt very strongly about my ability to bang a big drum to raise awareness around depression – an illness that you battled with all of your life.
I know you wanted me to speak up, so that if anyone else needed a friend or someone to talk to, and was going through the same struggles as you, I’d be able to help them. Privately or publicly.
I know we both felt greatly that the silence around mental illness created such a toxic environment for men, who were expected to – in your words – ‘man up, suffer in silence and get on with it’.
There is a lot I have discovered since you took your own life.
Firstly, while there is no hierarchy of death where one is better than the other, it’s safe to say that living a long life is at the top while a short one is at the bottom. I don’t know where suicide sits, but it’s safe to say, it makes other people REALLY uncomfortable.
I was advised against telling people how you died. And in the initial bizarreness of picking your burial plot and coffin (and being asked whether Robert was an eco-friendly man), I erred on the side of caution.
But by this 30th day, I have realised when the worst, most devastating thing possible happens, you lose the energy to maintain any artifice.
There is also an indignance that rises in me. If you had died of cancer, would I have kept your death or the circumstances a secret? Of course not. There would have been fun runs and cupcakes to kick cancer’s ass.
It was as if the method of your death implied weakness, when I know how hard you fought to stay in this world.
Despite the hand you were dealt, you achieved so much, you loved so deeply, you were gentle and kind and would help anyone who was struggling (even the homeless guy at our local bus shelter who you wanted to let stay on our couch), and you were also the most intelligent man I met – why would I not want to honour that?
And perhaps this speaks volumes about the mountain we have to climb in getting people to understand that mental illness is exactly the same as cancer. It is exactly the same as a cardiac arrest. No amount of love, medical care or money can help prevent it if it’s terminal.
When someone dies from suicide, there is anger directed at the person in a way it isn’t with physical illness. No one goes: “Oh, I can’t BELIEVE Larry died of cancer, how could he?”
In the aftermath, a lot of people have said to me: “I’m angry at him”. There was a lot of that floating around: how you made that choice and left us mired in such deep grief. There was anger at the life you had given up and the people you had left behind.
And perhaps while this is a completely natural reaction – and I certainly thought ‘How could you do this to me?’ in the first couple of days after your death, I think after a while, we must remember your best, brightest parts.
I’m not saying I have it figured out. I don’t know that I will ever fully understand your decision to end your life.
When I finally mustered up the courage to place my hand on your chest one last time, and I felt how cold you were, your soul evaporated, your eyes never to open again, I understood the finality of it. I understood that any idiot can create life – an episode of 16 and Pregnant will tell you that – but once given, it is a gift and a precious one at that.
I think the anger comes from not knowing we were on rations. It is fuelled by the guilt we all felt.
We should have hugged you more, spent time with you, memorised every part of you, told you we loved you – had just one more day with you – because deep down, we feel that if we did that, you wouldn’t have killed yourself.
The point I am trying to make is that I get it. With suicide, what feels like a choice to other people was not a choice for you. Our love – and you had an ocean of people who felt that way about you – was not going to anchor you to this world when you felt there was no possibility, no hope.
As I write this, there are plenty of people who feel like that. Some of them will not make that terrible, final choice, and some of them will. And although I don’t have the answers yet (maybe in another 30 days), I do know that we must talk about it.
We must make it easier for people to reach out when the blackness threatens to swallow them whole. We must give men the space, voice and understanding to be scared and vulnerable and not see it as weakness. We must say that mental health desperately needs funding, that it should be as top a priority as tackling obesity or cancer.
I’m not saying any of these things would have saved you. But I am saying that I refuse to remember you in anger and shame, when what we had was immense love.