Safe Spaces and World Suicide Prevention Day

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. I was asked to give a talk this morning (as a researcher) for a community event. I wrote something more personal -decided to be a whole person, and not just a ‘researcher’. This talk went through several iterations as it felt increasingly necessary to be fully human with it. Practicing in the early morning with a tremendous human being half way around the world made me remember that we don’t change things by half-speaking. Sometimes we can only make change – and be truly heard – when we let ourselves be vulnerable and trust that our story can find its place in the world.

So, below, is my talk:

This has been a tricky talk to write.

Not because I’m not used to talking about suicide – I am. I’ve been a researcher in suicide prevention for a few years now.

This talk was tricky to write because, this morning, I’m also talking as a sister and as a friend. I was 16 when I lost a close friend; 21 when I lost my brother. I can tell you the exact moments I found out about their deaths because these were the exact moments my life shattered. I’ve re-built a life since then – re-built a great life – but a life without these two men I loved. And it’s a journey I still work on even more than half my life later. Mark and Michael still exist in every heartbeat, and they always will.

So I didn’t want to give a talk full of rates and numbers because, if suicide has touched your life – whether it’s because you work in the field, or are bereaved, or have been suicidal, or all of those things –  whether you’re used to talking about suicide or if you’ve never told your story before – if suicide has touched your life, you know rates and numbers don’t matter. Not really.

Because one preventable suicide is too many – the deaths that you’ve experienced are too many – the grief that you’ve experienced too much. In focusing on rates and numbers, I’m afraid that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that every suicide statistic was a person, and every person has left someone grieving. That every person who dies by suicide had a story, and every person left behind has a story too.  We need to start talking about suicide where we focus on its human-ness because that’s what really matters in the end.

So this morning – speaking as a researcher, a sister, and a friend – I want to ask two questions.

First, do we actually talk about suicide enough? Do we talk about suicide openly?

I work in the field; I talk about it all the time now. But I’m also asked about it all the time now because I’m recognised as someone safe as soon as I mention my job – I’ve had conversations on planes, in pubs, almost anywhere where a conversation can be started, where people have told stories of their suicidality, sometimes for the very first time.

But it took me a good 12 years to talk really openly about my brother. I was well into my PhD by then. I could find the words to describe other people’s experiences, but not my own. I could listen to other people’s stories but didn’t feel I could find the words to tell mine. No words seemed enough. I’ve foiund them – found some – but it took a long time.

Because talking about suicide is not easy. Suicide can be a scary thing to talk about. It’s a big thing to talk about. In order to talk about suicide, we have to admit that sometimes people feel such pain that they can see no other way to end it; that people can experience this type of emotional pain every day of their lives, no matter how much help they seek. That the life that works for us may not work for everyone – and we can so easily walk past someone every day and not know how they feel. I think for my family, and for me, the hardest thing we had to make peace with, the most confronting thing, was that we weren’t enough to save my brother. Over the years, in different ways, we’ve made peace with this.

But it’s been a confronting thing.

But just as we may struggle to find the words to talk about suicide, so too do people who are suicidal. In studies that have included people who have attempted suicide – and these are only just beginning – people have talked about how they struggled to find the words to describe their pain. That suicide was a selfless act for them because they thought they were too much a burden. And when they did find the words, they weren’t always heard or taken seriously. That it wasn’t always enough to be told ‘not to worry, that things would get better’ – sometimes people needed their pain to be truly recognised and acknowledged – they needed to be seen – and this could make people feel uncomfortable.

But discomfort isn’t enough of a reason to not talk about suicide. Discomfort silences not only the person trying to tell their story or ask for help – but it also silences us as a community. It’s so much harder to hear what we are scared to listen to. When we still face stigma about suicide – where people who die by suicide are still sometimes described as mad or bad or selfish – where there is stil, a perception that suicide doesn’t happen in ‘good’ families – silence only makes stigma worse. We need to start talking about this discomfort in a way that lets us make peace with it– where we can sit in the rubble with someone, and not feel the need to talk over them, but rather let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Where we can sit in the rubble with someone and let them find a peace amidst all the uncertainty – their new normal – without having to say anything. Sometimes being quiet but present with someone is enough.

Which brings me to my second question, how do we make a safe space for someone to talk about suicide? A holding space to talk about the things that matter – so people feel supported, to ensure people feel safe rather than judged, and to help them heal?

Here maybe, we need to start looking at the small things. The small kindnesses that make a big difference when someone is hurting, when they need to be seen. In the same studies with people who had attempted suicide, they talked about being brought proper coffee while they were in hospital, a change of clothes, someone who just sat quietly with them to keep them company. They did not talk about being brought all the answers by a program, or a magic pill that solved all their sadness. There were no easy solutions. Rather, the people in these studies talked about finding people who got them – whether they were family or friends, or a health professional or someone else with lived experience – who understood that there would be good and bad days, who helped them find ways to better deal with the issues that made them vulnerable – whether it was counseling, or medication, or exercise, or art and writing, or mantras, or tattoos, or (most commonly) a mixture of all these things.  And different mixtures for different times, depending on what the person needed at the time. This was never an easy or straight-forward journey.

They talked about someone not only asking whether they were OK on a bad day but acting on the answer – spending time with them on days when they were not OK. And not just waiting until a person was not OK before doing something as well.

But also – and importantly – not presuming they knew all the answers. In areas like this, I think sometimes we are afraid to admit we don’t know all the answers. I will never know all the answers to my questions as to why I lost Michael and Mark. But this humility makes us better listeners, better health professionals, better researchers. We can make meaning out of uncertainty and shades of grey and spaces in-between – we can find peace with this – and admitting that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions also means that we acknowledge that people experience suicidality and bereavement differently. They will all tell their stories differently and take different journeys of healing. And these stories will be messy and raw and full of emotion. And acknowledging this makes a safe space for people to tell their stories. We have to trust sometimes that just listening to someone – being there for someone – without doing all the talking – is enough to make someone feel better. A might even be enough to save a life.

This can be a tricky day emotionally for some of us – it can be a tricky day for me emotionally too. World Suicide Prevention Day makes us realise how global suicide is – the experiences we share with millions and millions of people around the world regardless of culture and geography and everything else that is usually used to distinguish people. Far too many of us share stories of suicide bereavement and grief and suicidality. The person next to you, behind you, in front of you. Far too many of us are trying to tell stories that can feel unspeakable at times. It took me 12 years to find my words and I can still feel them in the pit of my stomach. In our stories of bereavement, we are all trying to explain the person we loved long ago, to someone who will never know them. Our lost person is a mystery to anyone else who doesn’t weave the same tapestry of memories. But it is important to keep trying to tell these stories in the hope that they might help someone else.

So today, we need to be kind to ourselves, and kind to others around us, as we honour those we have lost, those who still struggle with suicidality, and those who are bereaved. Days like today are important in remembering that we need to talk about suicide and we need to make sure that we are always safe spaces for people who want to share their stories.

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