We need to talk about it suicide. But we also need to research it.
Robin Williams’ death is a tragedy. He was undoubtedly a comic genius who has brought so much laughter and joy to millions of people around the world in his memorable (and at times immortal) roles. So many of his films and prophetic musings have been powerful way markers for my childhood and early adulthood.
Many health professionals and mental health charities have taken to the airwaves and social media to encourage people who are experiencing depression and have had suicidal thoughts to talk about how they are feeling and seek help. This is really important advice that I hope people in distress will heed.
Yet, sadly, we have to recognise that sometimes it’s not enough. As it is being widely reported, Robin Williams was talking about how he felt, and he had sought help over many years. It also seems he was surrounded by a loving supportive family, another critical safety net. But he still made the fateful decision to end his own life.
My mum also died by suicide. She talked about how she felt before she died. She went, repeatedly, to see her GP, and just two days before she killed herself she sat talking to her psychiatrist. She had a doting husband, adoring children and a wide circle of caring friends who she shared how she was feeling with. But still she died.
In fact, almost 50% of people who take their own lives in the UK have seen their GP in the preceding month, and many in the fortnight before they die.
That’s why it’s not always easy for me to have confidence that the advice to share your worries and get professional help will be enough.
I don’t believe that suicide is inevitable. It doesn’t have to happen. But to really protect people who are thinking about suicide we have to do more than put the onus on them to talk and seek help. We have a duty to also ensure that those to whom they turn in times of distress are much better at recognising risk and spotting and acting on the danger signs. Every week thousands of people with mental distress go and see their GP, and prescriptions for drugs to effect mood and feelings are rising all the time. It’s understandably therefore a real challenge to spot those 6,000 people who each year take their own life.
For years, stigma and shame have prevented people from talking about deaths by suicide. And that’s stopped us from learning from their deaths – the factors that contributed to the risk, the build up to the day the tormenting demons got their own way, and how those bereaved by suicide think their loved one could have been saved.
Now, fortunately times are changing, thanks to the sterling work of organisations like Time to Change and occasions like the sad death of public figures like Robin Williams, are a chance to debate the issues. So please now let’s galvanise support and interest in suicide prevention.
And for me, that has to include recognition that suicide is a legitimate topic for medical and academic investigation. We have to invest in research that helps to equip us with the knowledge and tools to spot risk, to interpret warning signs, to train professionals and to educate the public. We need research that talks to families about their loss, to the professionals who have held conversations with them, and also to people battling their own suicidal thoughts. Then we need to organise this information and share it. And then use it to help to shape the delivery of effective services and to motivate and educate everyone in society to ensure that we’re all equipped to make a difference when someone does ask for help. From every suicide, each of which is a tragedy, we should be looking for the information that can help us to prevent another death. That’s what I, and every other bereaved family I know, feel is the least we can do for our loved ones.
And that’s why I commit my own time and energy to the Judi Meadows Memorial Fund to raise funds and awareness of the importance of suicide research. To date we have supported the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research and the GRiST safety and risk management tool. But we need many more people, clinicians, academics and policy makers to have an interest in, and willingness to, understand suicide to truly stand a chance to help save threatened lives.
We have to take every suicide, each of which is a tragedy, and use it to derive knowledge to help prevent another one.