The movement of suicide

During the peak of COVID-19 whilst walking between hospital sites in a large city, the streets were empty of pedestrians except for one person who was balanced precariously on a wall above a busy road bridge. It was apparent this person was about to jump off the bridge into the oncoming traffic.

In that split second not only did the tragedy of this person’s life come to mind, but also the impact of this death on the person’s friends and family, as well as the trauma the emergency services experience in dealing with these tragic cases. In addition, in that split moment, the lives of all those driving under the bridge and all their friends, relatives and work colleagues were also about to be impacted. One person, and a large ripple effect that impacts on many hundreds of people, families, businesses and services. On this occasion the person was talked down off the bridge and taken to the nearest hospital, but there are many occasions where this tragedy takes place and the ripple effects are vast.

Data about health, including suicide, takes a while to be collated and published, so we may not know the full impact of suicide during and post the restrictions being implemented during the COVID pandemic, but what we can say is that despite all the technology, pharmaceuticals, research, tomes of journal articles and many services available, that suicide is not going away anytime soon.

Having experienced first hand the impact of suicide of a close relative over 25 years ago, the bomb that goes off when a person suicides shatters the lives of many. No matter the age, the gender or the walk of life of the person, suicide sends a bolt of lightning that can scar their friends, relatives and colleagues for life. And one of the likely most asked questions is ‘why?’ ‘Why did my brother, sister, aunt, partner, teacher, daughter, mother, colleague do it?’ ‘What drove them to it?’ And another comment that can also be heard is ‘but they seemed okay’… ‘surely their life wasn’t that bad?’… Adding to the pain of grief and loss is often the mystery around suicide, which in many other deaths e.g. from illness, those questions are not asked or are not so pertinent: if you die from cancer, whilst it can be equally as tragic for those left behind, they are not left asking ‘why did they die of cancer?’ in quite the same way those questions are asked after a suicide.

The latest statistics (from 2019) from WHO state that ‘close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds… …There are indications that for each adult who died by suicide, there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide’.

WHO data in the UK states that in 2019 there were 5,691 suicides registered in England and Wales, an age-standardised rate of 11.0 deaths per 100,000 population, consistent with the rate in 2018… and that ‘around three-quarters of registered deaths in 2019 were among men (4,303 deaths), which follows a consistent trend back to the mid-1990s.’

The data about COVID-19 has been in every social media and news outlet daily during the pandemic. It’s clear we can get data on illness and disease if we make a concerted effort, as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why then is it we report and track some conditions and not others? And why aren’t suicide statistics or mental health statistics in the news every day? And why do we only pay attention to some conditions or illnesses and not all equally? Why do we seem to turn a blind eye to suicide?

No matter our jobs, or lives, or whether we are currently working remotely or amongst others, there is always an opportunity to check in with ourselves, and with others. To sense whether we are going ‘adrift’, a little off course, behaving or thinking in ways that are not ‘normal’ for us. There are also opportunities to sense the same in others. Not in a judgemental way, not nit picking or spying or interrogation, but in a caring and respectful way.

By the same way we know our own movements, our ways of being in life, we often know the movements and ways of being in the lives of others, particularly those we see or are in contact with more often. We know when someone’s eyes don’t have their usual sparkle, if their voice is monotone and not their usual self, or their shoulders are slumped and not their usual walk.

A while ago a colleague was walking in a workplace corridor: their gait was laboured, their face was flat, their eyes were flickering with tears and they were clearly ‘down in the dumps’. This was a colleague who had started a new job some six months prior, bouncy, sparkly, shiny and bright. What was walking along the corridor on this day was not that. Everyone has an ‘off day’ or a ‘tired day’ but this was not that either… this did not seem like an ‘off day’. After a few words in the corridor, it was apparent that this colleague was in deep despair and was feeling utterly helpless and exhausted. Not one person in that workplace of 5,000 staff had asked them how they were. The conversation invited this person to consider their options (for example, whether to go home, go to their GP, take stock, get some support) and this they did. Four weeks later, they were back walking along the corridor with a spring in their step and eyes shiny once again.

Whilst we are not responsible for the choices our friends, relatives and colleagues make in their lives, or the movements they choose, we can take responsibility to sense how another is, to ask someone how they are, or to observe a change in stance, in vitality, in another’s ‘usual way’. If we can observe others for symptoms of COVID-19 in a pandemic, we can observe others as to how they are, beyond coughs and sneezes. And the more we observe our own movements, and when, how and what affects our movements, and what happens when we change our movements, the more we can observe this in others.

On considering the movements of the relative who died of suicide 25+ years ago, the changes in their movements and the changes in their behaviours were there many, many years prior to their suicide. And whilst observing the changes all those years prior may not have impacted on the person’s movements that took them to the point of suicide, it may just have opened up an opportunity for them to receive the care that they needed, or to have opened up the possibility that the trajectory of the change in their movements could have offered another series of movements that did not lead to suicide.

Whilst suicide maybe a sudden onset (for example, in reaction to a situation), from the experience of living with someone where the movements and changes in behaviours prior to suicide occurred over the decade prior to the suicide, the realisation is that there can be many, many steps towards suicide, just as there are to obesity and other illnesses.

Trying to ‘solve’ the crisis of suicide in a ‘post-cause’ way (i.e. after the fact), is not likely to change the rate of suicides. Understanding the steps towards a trajectory of potential suicide, and what precedes it, may just offer another view.


References:

  • [1]

    Office of National Statistics (2019) Suicides in England and Wales: 2019 registrations. Accessed online 14.09.20 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2019registrations

  • [2]

    WHO (2020) Suicide Data. Accessed online 14.09.20 https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/

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SuicideBehaviourMental health

  • By Jane Keep, Healthcare Manager

  • Photography: Dean Whitling, Brisbane based photographer and film maker of 13 years.

    Dean shoots photos and videos for corporate portraits, architecture, products, events, marketing material, advertising & website content. Dean's philosophy - create photos and videos that have magic about them.