The impact of suicide on families

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Most people are not aware that suicide is the biggest killer of young men in the UK. Anne Thorn, who lost her son to suicide, examines the impact of a suicide in the family and how talking about it could help prevent it.

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When they are babies you creep into their room at night to check they are still breathing. You put those soft plastic things on sharp corners and lock away the bleach. You put them in car seats and then later you tell them about the danger of drugs. You don’t go to sleep until you hear the door click shut indicating they are safely home. You send them off to University with warnings about safe sex; you’ve done your child rearing job but you still worry.

I worried that my son would get mugged for his iPhone, get into a car with a mate who was driving drunk, or would take drugs. But the one thing I should have worried about most was not even on my radar. That as a young male he was more likely to die from suicide than anything else. The one thing I needed to protect him from I was blissfully unaware of until it was too late.  What kind of parent does that make me? I feel like a failure; why didn’t I know?  A recent YouGov poll found only a fifth of the public realised suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men under 45.

I’ve learnt more about suicide than I ever wanted to since a policeman knocked on my door one ordinary night in July 2011 and told me that my 23-year-old son Toby had walked into a sugar beet field and killed himself. It came as a complete bolt out of the blue. Thirty seconds was all it took for him to utter those words that ran a bulldozer through my world, leaving just the wreckage of my former life behind.

I can tell you how many people died from suicide in 2013, it was 6,233 and I can tell you that 78% were men. That’s 17 people every day who are in unbearable mental pain and end their lives to escape it. By the end of today 17 more families in the UK will be left to make sense of it. And the rates are increasing, the 2013 rates are 4% higher than the previous year. Worldwide, every day, the number of suicides is equivalent to the number of lives lost in the attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2001. Behind the numbers are shattered families and friends, the survivors, the ones left behind trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

“You want to empty a room? Talk about suicide.”

One of the reasons people are unaware of the shocking statistics is because the word suicide still carries a huge stigma in our society. Professor Green a celebrity rapper (real name Stephen Manderson) recently made a BBC documentary —Suicide and Me, about the suicide of his Dad in 2008 at the age of 43 when Stephen was 24. Since then he hadn’t really talked to anyone or confronted his emotions.  Stephen says in a recent newspaper article: “You want to empty a room? Talk about suicide.”

I know how he feels; how do you handle the question “Do you have children?” at a dinner party. I say I have a son but unfortunately he died. If they ask how I tell them, but then steel myself for the pitiful look and the awkward silence before they change the subject. Most people just don’t know how to talk about suicide. Before my son died I just thought it was something that happened to others, tragic cases of people who were obviously mentally ill or disturbed. But I have since found out that 75% of people who die from suicide have never been diagnosed as mentally ill. And for every case of someone with obvious problems I can show you a case of someone who on the face of it had everything going for them and a bright future ahead. Just ordinary people with ordinary lives and ordinary families.

“It is our job to look after them” Tina Davis

One such ordinary family is the Davis family. Tina Davis and her husband had 4 children ranging from 16 to 24 when their lives were shattered by the fateful knock on the door at 6 am one July morning in 2011. Tina saw the police car outside and got a sick sinking feeling even before the policeman delivered the news that her 19-year-old son Nathan had been found dead in the river after falling from the Orwell Bridge near Ipswich, which is a notorious suicide spot.

Nathan’s sister Emma was a carefree 24-year-old when her Mum knocked on her bedroom door that morning. “I was in complete shock; I could see she was shaken up, I could see the shock on her face but it never crossed my mind it could be that,” Emma says.

Nathan was very funny and always had a sarcastic comment about whatever was being discussed. He had a natural talent for the guitar and was often up in his room playing songs. He was quite shy but around his family his funny side came out. He had just finished his first year at University studying Pharmacy and was home for the summer. “He seemed to be getting on really well and had come out of his shell, he seemed happier than ever,” Emma says.

Looking back Emma can’t remember anything specific that might have caused Nathan to end his life. She says: “There were no specific events, but we found out he had been to see the doctor and had been prescribed antidepressants.” Emma wishes she had known but it is hard to say what would have made a difference. “I think Nathan would have found it hard talking about those kind of feelings with anyone, even us,” she says.

Tina recalls that the night it happened Nathan had been at work and the family had got a takeaway. Tina didn’t get anything for Nathan because she didn’t know what time he would get in. When he came home Tina joked: “We didn’t get anything for you because we forgot about you,” and that haunts her to this day.  “I worry that this was in his head, that we had forgotten about him,” she says.

“I told myself I have to accept the guilt, that there might have been something I was guilty of but I accept that. It is our job to look after them.”

“The worse thing is when someone asks me how many brothers and sisters I have and I don’t know what to say”

George, Nathan’s younger brother was 16 and had just finished his GCSEs. “I spent the most time with Nathan, we played on the PlayStation together and a lot of the things I did was to imitate him. I looked up to him,” he says.

“In the morning when we first found out I was confused, no one actually said he had died, they just said he had fallen off the bridge, I couldn’t comprehend what had actually happened,” he recalls.

George adds: “A few days later it suddenly struck me that I was never going to see him again and slowly it crept up on me.”

However, it is good to hear that George talks to his mates more now. “Since it happened we have started to open up a bit more and we now tell each other when we are feeling a bit shit, we didn’t before.” The charity CALM (Campaign against living miserably) was set up specifically to help men due to the disproportionate suicide statistics, their main campaign is focused on the fact that men don’t talk about their problems and they have posters proclaiming ‘The silence is killing us’.

George is now 20 and at University studying Physics. He says: “You have your ups and downs and special days are really hard, it is always on your mind. The worse thing is when someone asks me how many brothers and sisters I have and I don’t know what to say. Do I say I’ve got two brothers and a sister or do I say I’ve got a brother and a sister and I had another brother? I now say I’ve got two brothers otherwise it was like he didn’t exist.”

People bereaved by suicide are left to deal with the guilt, the stigma, the endless questions that all begin with why. Why did they do it? why didn’t they talk to me? and ‘why didn’t we know?’ Studies have proved that for each suicide an average of 10 people are deeply affected, resulting in serious psychological and physical illnesses which can have a life transforming effect.

Dawn French’s Dad killed himself when she was 19. In her autobiography she articulates with gut wrenching honesty the questions survivors are left with. She asks: “Did it feel lovely? Did you go out still fighting? Or did you surrender to the stillness, willing it to take you? Did you weep? Did we cross your mind? Did you choke? Struggle? Did you just float away? Did you say Goodbye? To what? To whom?….I’ve lost you. Where are you? Can you see me? I’m in f**king agony you selfish bastard, don’t you care?…Why didn’t you say? Why didn’t you give us a chance to help you? Did you consider that we couldn’t – can’t – live properly without you?” This is just an excerpt from more than a page of raw emotion.

But what is the answer? In order to prevent something, we have to understand the cause. Even experts and academics cannot clearly explain why someone takes their own life.  However, there are clues as to why so many men are killing themselves. Professor Louis Appleby, the chair of the National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group in England believes men are more at risk of suicide because they are more likely to drink heavily, use self-harm methods that are more often fatal and are reluctant to seek help.

CALM recently published a major new poll, which sheds light on the scale of the problems affecting men. The poll of more than 2000 men found that 42% of those surveyed had considered suicide, with 41% never talking to anyone about their problems. 49 per cent of those who did not seek help “didn’t want people to worry about me”. While 32% felt ashamed, 37% did not want to make a fuss and 43% didn’t want to talk about their feelings.

Professor Green breaks down and weeps numerous times in the film he made about his Dad. He says afterwards in a newspaper article: “People ask me, was it cathartic? No, it wasn’t cathartic. It was f****** horrible. I will never stop being upset about what happened.” Now he has become a campaigner and a patron of the charity CALM.

The lasting impact affects the whole Davis family. “Recently I thought I wanted to have a family photo done but I won’t have it done because Nathan can’t be in it. We used to have one done every year. But then I feel guilty for the other children,” Tina says.

Emma reflects that in losing a sibling she lost a part of herself. Brothers and sisters share so many experiences that only they can really understand and in a close family your whole sense of self is built with your siblings as a central part of it.

“Especially hard is the knowledge that they didn’t think you would understand or be able to help, and so they didn’t turn to you for help.

“All of this you have to face at a time when the rest of your family, who can often be your closest support, are facing the same terrible grief,” Emma says.

Dawn French ends her letter to her Dad by saying she accepts that she will never fully understand why he did what he did. But that staying angry doesn’t help anyone and that her Dad would want her to live her life to the full despite her “pitiful grief”.

That is what survivors have to do, to find a new normal and make peace with all the unanswered questions. But survivors also have an important role to play in helping to raise awareness of this shocking epidemic that causes the pointless waste of so many young lives. If we increase awareness of suicide and its impact and charities such as CALM keep working tirelessly to encourage men to talk about their feelings, then maybe we will start to see those statistics decline instead of continuing to rise year after year.

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