Shame is a powerful thing. It can turn the strongest of us to blubbering wrecks, it can freeze our bodies to the spot, cause us to retreat in on ourselves, to grow small and even act completely in opposition to our nature. Shame silences us. It convinces us that we’re alone and this alienation only drives us deeper into solitude.
Even after years of grappling with my ghosts, my shame still haunts me. It catches my words in my throat and renders me speechless. Why? Because like a bully that doesn’t want you to speak out against the tormentors, this emotion knows that words are the way out. Like a boa-constrictor, it coils its tail around our throats, choking our ability to share and therefore connect; because when we share an emotion we remove its power and make it more manageable to deal with, eventually relinquishing its hold on us. Talking about our feelings enables us to step out of isolation and realise that we’re not so different or alone after all.
My process towards connection continues here. I hope that by sharing the words in text that I couldn’t on the microphone, I’ll manage not only to lessen my own isolation, but perhaps to aid someone else out of theirs too.
We all suffer. It is human to do so. It is natural to experience fear, anxiety, sadness and depression. These emotions are part of the palette that colours our existence and makes us who we are; living, breathing, feeling creatures. We must come to know both light and shade in this life, because it is through this contrast that we can appreciate the very depths of our own experience.
For many of us, moments of sadness can develop into something far greater. Statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that, globally, more than 300 million people of all ages are currently hounded by the black dog of depression. Further records estimate that 15% of all adults will have experienced debilitating sadness, anxiety or panic in their lifespan. With many people never getting access to the right resources to guide their way out of the darkness, it’s estimated that every 40 seconds someone dies by their own hand. And as numbers continue to rise, suicide is now reported as the second leading cause of death in our 18-29 year olds. This number grows each year.
I don’t wish to get into philosophical, political or religious discussions on whether suicide is right or wrong; it is merely an exceptionally sad fact. Let’s not pretend that this happens to “other people” either. With seemingly greater pressures placed on us than previous generations, it’s now estimated that 1 in 4 of us knows someone (directly, or indirectly) that has taken their own life.
I am one of those people.
In 2009 my boyfriend of 10 years hanged himself. A gentle man, a kind and loving son, and a talented young filmmaker who, after suffering (possibly for many years) with a silent and insidious depression, finally chose to close the door and quietly take himself away to die. The pain of this life was too much to bear.
He is not the only person to feel this way. Every year 800,000 people do the very same. Whilst provisions for mental health care are still drastically low, there are sources of support and assistance out there, but the path to them is blocked by a huge hurdle. This great obstacle to clear is SHAME and the social stigma associated with mental disorders.
In this day and age, suicide and suicidal ideation are still a huge taboo. Although there are known, effective treatments for severe depression, fewer than half of those affected in the world (in many countries, fewer than 10%) receive such treatments. Our fear of its prevalence, mixed with social and cultural rules around one’s right to life and in turn our right to die, make it an extremely sticky subject. Simply put, we don’t know how to talk about it.
If someone you knew told you they were feeling suicidal, what would you do? Would you shrug it off or nervously change the subject? Would you assume they were being overly dramatic and didn’t actually mean to harm themselves? Would you bury your head in the sand and hope they were joking? Or would you look online and after reading one of the hundreds of inaccurate statements saying that “those who talk about suicide, never intend to do it”, guess that it was a cry for help that won’t be acted upon?
Here comes the wake-up call – The shame involved in admitting these feelings should be enough of a warning signal. Even if the person uttering them never intends to follow through to completion, the fact they are considering suicide as an option and choosing to speak up is enough to warrant further help. Here is your chance to make a difference.
But our lack of a language to talk about one’s feelings, especially the most extreme of them, is preventing us from helping those we care for. We must find the tools to discuss these difficult subjects because through open dialogue we can find solutions. Without it, more and more people will feel the isolation that Christopher felt and choose to slip away into darkness alone.
I don’t think Christopher ever wanted to die. He loved life too much. He cared too deeply for his friends and family to genuinely want to say goodbye or indeed to cause them life-altering pain upon his loss. He just wanted his own pain to stop and yet was too ashamed of his feelings to connect with another human who possibly could help.
Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that we must all furnish ourselves with psychology degrees and the kind of training to talk someone down from ‘the ledge’, but I do believe we have a powerful weapon in our arsenal that might facilitate the beginnings of a dialogue. The tool at our disposal and the gift we can offer is empathy. To quote social-psychologist Dr. Brene Brown…
“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
You don’t need to understand the intricacies of someone else’s pain to appreciate that they are suffering. If we can look at someone with a cast on their leg or steel pins in their hands and wince at imagining how that must feel, I’d like to think we have the capacity to hear someone say “I don’t want to be here anymore” and consider how incredibly isolating that feeling must be and the courage it takes to say such words. You don’t need to walk a mile in another man’s shows to appreciate his journey. An important facet of the human brain is our ability to imagine and thereby put ourselves metaphorically into another man/woman’s shoes.
Empathy truly is the key to connection and it’s through connectivity and open dialogue that we can render the shame and taboo of suicide impotent. Without our silence masking the route to help, maybe you or someone just like you might find the light to guide them out of the darkness.
This September 10th is the World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD), organised by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) to raise awareness that suicide can be prevented. On this day and every other, I’ll be standing alongside thousands of people committed to breaking the stigma of suicide and depression, by saying that “I am NOT afraid to talk about suicide”. Will you stand up and courageously commit to the same?
By Charlotte Miles
If you or someone you know is in a vulnerable state and needs support, please reach out to one of the following organisations: