In the UK in 2016 there were 5,250 deaths from brain tumours. Over the same period there were 5,965 deaths from suicide.
Is it right to compare the two? Probably not. I chose them because both have similar mortality rates, and, to a large extent, both are “invisible” to passers-by. But it’s important to remember that both physical and mental well-being are essential to living a healthy life.
We’ve all heard people say that those with mental health issues are “attention seeking” or “have too much time on their hands” and the old classic “what can they possibly have to be depressed about?” The reality is that most people don’t know what they have to be depressed about – it’s not their choice; but they’re certainly not attention seeking or a case of having too much time on their hands.
It’s far too easy to oversimplify mental health issues.
In some cases, depression and anxiety can be like a shadow – a metaphorical cancer – lingering at the back of the conscious mind manipulating subconscious thoughts until they become dominant. For others it’s like a light switch – in a single instant their world is plunged in darkness. For many it’s a combination of both – often people learn to recognise the lingering shadows and, for the most part, very successfully hold them at bay – only to have no warning when the lights suddenly go out.
Part of the problem is that we still refer to “mental health issues” in umbrella terms. We wouldn’t think of a viral infection and a broken arm in the same way – even though they’re both physical health issues; but we understand less about mental health care – so we try to simplify it. Which means that it can be a double-edged sword – on the plus side it’s a phrase that helps to increase awareness; but it also means that people sometimes fail to understand the complexities about mental health.
Not everyone who suffers with mental health issues will be suicidal – or even suffer with depression. And those who do will each have very different and complex reasons for feeling as they do.
Lib Dem Councillor David Hancock said:
My late father died of cancer. In his final days, when he could barely move and was in receipt of palliative care, he said: “They wouldn’t let a dog suffer like this.”
I believe many of us empathise with someone in that position wanting an end to their suffering; but then fail to comprehend that, for others experiencing severe mental health issues, suicide can seem like the only way they can end their pain.
We need to ensure that there is adequate healthcare provision available for people when they need it. People shouldn’t be reaching a point where considering suicide appears to be the only way of stopping their pain.
We need to be targetting money at early intervention.
If someone becomes physically ill in their teens we don’t expect them to wait ten years before we offer them treatment; but our current system is failing whole generations.
Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously suffered with depression. He called it his “black dog” – and he explained the constant battle he faced against such an urge:
”I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
There are those who would argue that it’s an active choice to end one’s own life and that people should be free to do that. While that will be true for some people; for others, it is a symptom of their illness rather than a conscious decision.
So why raise this subject now?
Aside from our mental health services being woefully underfunded and inadequate; for reasons we don’t understand suicides tend to be cyclic. Contrary to popular belief suicides typically reduce over the Christmas period but then hit one of their periodic peaks as we enter the new year.
If someone you know, who lives with mental health issues, demonstrates a sudden change in their mood (either way) this could be a warning sign. They may suddenly cut themselves off from those close to them. Alternatively, it’s not uncommon, for someone planning to take their own life, to experience an uncharacteristic calmness or even elation in having come to terms with the decision to end their life. One quick phone call or text checking how they are can make all the difference – their knowing that someone cares can genuinely be a lifesaver.
And if you find yourself feeling suicidal or unable to cope there are many routes open to access the support you need:
Call a friend or relative you trust. If you’re not comfortable doing that, then:
- The Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123 (freephone)
- Call your GP (if they’re open) – they have a duty to see anyone at risk
- If your GP is closed dial 111
- If there is an immediate threat to your life, for example, dial 999
- Visit A&E and talk to someone there
There is always someone available to help.
Let’s go back to that earlier example. If you had a brain tumour, you would seek the proper medical help. Having a mental health issue is no different – don’t suffer in silence – make the necessary telephone call, have the proper conversation, and seek the proper medical support. Most importantly, don’t become a statistic.