Suicide: Why does it happen and how can we help?
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Suicide: Why does it happen and how can we help?
At this particular time of the year, Christmas, or when we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries etc, suicide rates often tend to rise. These times for most of us, are celebratory, fun, and a time for family and friends to gather and socialise. So why is it such times for others, becomes perhaps the 'ultimate trigger,' to carry out the act of suicide.
There are many reasons why someone may choose to end their
life, but whilst working with the suicidal client for over 20 years now, there are three words that continue to surface; these words are meaning, purpose, and hope. Hope, some would argue, is the
most important virtue there is, and the foundation upon which everything else is built upon.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines:
Meaning: (in this context) as important or worthwhile quality;
Purpose: the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists; and
Hope: a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.
When we awake each morning, we perhaps are not aware, but for most of us, we have meaning in our lives. For those of us who have children, they 'mean' the world to us, these little guys give us 'purpose' to provide, to care for and to love. We 'hope' they are safe and healthy and will grow and develop to be the best they can be.
Another example: the worker who helps the homeless, she has great 'meaning' to her life, her 'purpose,' is to ensure she provides food, warmth, blankets, compassion even love to those less fortunate than her. She 'hopes' that providing such generosity, genuineness and care, will give her and the homeless guy 'hope,' for the future.
In reality, some of us may perceive those who are suicidal, as people who wish to 'end their life,' or the 17-year-old girl who 'hurts and cuts herself,' as someone who wishes to destroy and inflict pain on her body. The truth though couldn't be further away from this, the truth is that in both cases, the person doesn't want to either destroy or end their life, they are in terrible psychological pain, a pain none of us could ever understand unless we have been to that very dark and lonely place.
To try and understand such processes, one must also consider the unconscious mind. Often, when the mind succumbs to excruciating psychological pain, a pain which the sufferer chooses to try and cope with on their own, this can in fact be detrimental to the patient's psychological health & well being. Or when the sufferer attends a service or services that are insufficient, or the sufferer attends health care providers who are working outside of their competency limits, the condition can actually become much worse. When this happens, either the mind or the subconscious can in theory, 'kick in,' attempting to 'fix the problem.'
So, with respect, and to try and understand all of this in layman's terms, I'll apply the former to a hypothetical scenario. Let's say, Jane, a 22-year-old female, whilst walking home alone at night, is brutally attacked and raped. Good Samaritan contact the emergency services and the necessary help arrived. After a few months, Jane was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a terrible psychological disorder, which occurs frequently after the body and mind experience an unexpected shock. Jane attends someone who isn't trained, nor specialises in PTSD, the condition worsens! Jane is now in a very high state of hyper-arousal, with an extremely low threshold for anxiety-based experiences. Jane begins to have urges to cut herself, (unconsciously orientated) as this process, believe it or not, actually deflects the psychological pain to the physical, which perhaps is more tolerable than the psychological. In addition, the body releases chemicals which target the physical pain, but also makes Jane feel less anxious and sometimes actually quite euphoric. This then becomes a way of coping with violent rape, a process which in turn can become quite addictive. Thinking about the attack, Jane may also blame herself for what happened, trying to come to terms with why someone would do such a terrible thing. Quite often, victims in this situation will conclude 'it somehow must have been my fault!' This process is known as 'Introjection, to take in.' So what Jane and Jane's mind and body are trying to do, is:
To try and make sense of what happened, and deal with the psychological pain through subconscious processes. This type of inappropriate intervention of course cannot and should not happen as this particular work requires trained and experienced specialised trauma therapists. So, without such help, the mind or the subconscious is then triggered into attempting to help Jane and initiates a process called hypo-arousal. This is a complete metabolic shut down of everything and anything the mind and body do not need to survive.
This often can result in paralysis, somatic experiences (ills induced in the body by the mind) and something else which is extremely sinister and quite dangerous, 'dissociation.' Dissociation is a state, where the person had literally dissociated (or detached) from themselves's, not in the physical sense, but in the conscious sense. In this state, Jane is now 'isolated,' or disconnected not only from self but from others and society.
This is the point when suicidal ideation or thoughts begins to occur, and Jane will begin to hear voices in her head saying things like 'you must die, you must die (this is known as the inner voice). This experience is of course not real, but Janes subconscious mind is attempting to 'regulate,' all the thoughts and feelings associated with the abuse. It is Janes introjections mentioned earlier, turning against her. Jane has now detached, isolated, dissociated, with no sense of meaning, purpose or hope! Her life means nothing to her, as she sees herself as damaged, contaminated, compromised, and quite possibly the instigator of the attack. Whatever Jane's purpose was in life, prior to the attack, it has now been 'stolen' or 'broken' by the perpetrator.
Of course, Jane won't see it like that, rather she will again blame herself for what happened, leaving her with a life that is meaningless and now without purpose. But the most important virtue any of us possess is hope! Why in the name of God would Jane ever dare to hope again?
We as a species, place trust in other humans every single day in the life, the taxi driver, the GP, the dentist, the airline pilot, we must do this in order to survive. We hope all these individuals, and thousands like them, will provide us with trust, so here's the thing: why would Jane trust another human again? After all, it was a human being, a representative of the human species, that violated her, raped her, abused her in every way humanly possible. That broke a bond, an invisible bond we all possess between each other. What hope then remains for Jane? None!! (Well that's how Jane sees it).
So What Can We Do?
A wonderful theorist and researcher, and someone who lost his father to suicide, Thomas Joiner, came up with two concepts which are extremely important; that important that every single one of us should know about when we are trying to help someone who is suicidal:
1. Perceived burdensomeness; and
2. Thwarted belongingness
Perceived burdensomeness is when the sufferer truly believes that they are a burden to others, especially family members, thinking the family would be better if they were gone. This of course is a total distortion of the sufferers thinking. Family and friends MUST make the sufferer aware, that they love them totally and unconditionally and that having the sufferer around is a total blessing NOT A BURDEN.
The second of Joiner's concepts is thwarted belongingness. This is when the sufferer believes they do not belong anywhere, and perhaps this concept 'dovetails' into detachment and dissociative states discussed earlier. We must try to assist the sufferer to reconnect with family, friends and the community, if we succeed, the sufferer stands a much better chance of reconnecting to their world, their meaning, their purpose and their hope!!
Israel Orbach, another wonderful humanist and researcher, who passed away in 2010, suggests that we let the suicidal person know what we would miss if they were gone, 'their eyes,' their sense of humour, suicidal patients also have a sense of humour and many more traits associated with the sufferer. This in turn would suggest the simple things we all take for granted that we are aware of every single day, are of paramount importance. These are the things that potentially could make all the difference, the things that could change suicidal thinking into hope!!
I know this may be difficult reading for some, perhaps family members who have lost loved ones, or for those who may be in that dark lonely place tonight feeling detached and isolated, please please know that there is so much more you have yet to do, so much more you have yet to discover, much much more you can contribute.
A project I will initiate in Coalisland and surrounding areas in the very near future will be to invite those of you who are familiar with that 'dark and lonely place,' to help me and my colleagues as therapists, understand how to approach and help the suicidal sufferer. As someone who researches this phenomenon constantly, I want to learn all about you, I want to learn all about what it's like for you to be in that 'dark and lonely place,' I want to learn how you got there. Perhaps this is your meaning, or your purpose, perhaps by helping me and my colleagues, you will help countless others by giving both them and you hope for the future.
Family members and friends who have been bereaved by suicide, it is YOU who can bring compassion warmth and love, to those who may, unfortunately, find themselves in this very difficult position, it is YOU who can make the difference. There are no therapists, no psychiatrists, no psychologists, and no GPs, no books or DVDs, and no organisations, who have the answers, there are none!! Such support of course is necessary and welcomed, but the true understanding and empathy will always, always come from those who have suffered great losses, the ultimate loss in the past.
How can we be experienced enough to inform or support those who have lost loved ones to suicide, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts and of course friends?
Finally, my thoughts and prayers for everyone who's suffering tonight, are with you all. If you wish to pm me, please feel free. As many will know, there is a wonderful organisation based here in Coalisland called the Mid-Ulster Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (MACP).
This service offers a free and totally confidential counselling service.
This article was written by:
Joe Coney FNCS, MSSc, MBACP (Sen Accred, Couns and Supervisor).
The numbers you can call MACP on are:
028 8799 0019
Or you can email us on:
The Samaritans Portadown
162 Thomas St, Portadown, Craigavon BT62 3BD
116 123 (this number is free to call)
028 3833 3555 (local call charges apply)
(UK and ROI)
Or you can call Lifeline on:
0808 808 8000
When you are experiencing anxiety you are feeling tense, fearful and you may also have some physical symptoms, for example, A fast heart rate, palpitations, feeling sick, shaking, dry mouth, headaches, sweating, fast breathing or chest pain. It is important to remember that anxiety is a normal physiological reaction to ordinary life events and sometimes anxiousness can be helpful. Anxiety is abnormal if it: continues after a stressful event has ended, is out of proportion to the stressful event or if it appears out of the blue for no apparent reason or when there is no stressful event taking place.
Depression is quite a common problem and a lot of people experience it at some point in their lives. Depression involves emotional feelings of feeling sad, guilty, upset, loss of interest in things, feeling alone when in other people’s company and crying a lot or perhaps not being able to cry. There are also some physical signs of depression which include: sleep problems, less energy, restlessness, being more tired than normal and changes in appetite and weight. If you are depressed you may experience some of the following thoughts: thinking you hate yourself, thoughts of taking your life, you think that everything is hopeless, you are expecting the worst to always happen and you lose confidence within yourself. Suffering from depression will make it more difficult for you to carry out your normal daily routine and everything seems like a constant struggle.
Self-harm involves a wide variety of behaviours that people do to themselves deliberately and in secret. This secretive behaviour can go on for long periods of time without others around them being aware that it is an issue. Self-harm involves: cutting, burning, scalding, hitting, hair pulling, breaking bones or swallowing toxic substances. Self-harm is usually a sign that there is an unresolved mental health issue. It can also be a way for the individual to gain a sense of release as they have not yet found the words in order to deal with their underlying mental health problem. Self-harm is rarely an attempt to end their life and some might find it a way to feel alive. Although if self-harming behaviours continue without help, this could lead to suicide or death by becoming over adventurous.