The release of the latest suicide statistics present a grim picture. Suicide is on the increase. For the first time ever, in 2015, over 3,000 Australians ended their lives and once again, across all age groups, the majority were men. These men are our sons, grandsons, fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, friends and workmates. U.S. science writer Paul Brodeur stated that “statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” Having worked in suicide prevention for 30 years with a particular interest in men and suicide, I have experienced way too many tears. Men’s tears of anguish and despair as they have agonized about whether they could keep living, as well as the tears of grieving families as they try to make sense of why someone they love has killed themselves.
Surely these statistics must compel us into action. It is time for us men to have a national conversation about why so many of us are increasingly choosing death over life. We must come up with the solutions. Thankfully with leadership from organizations such as Movember and beyondblue and now the excellent TV series “Man Up” starting on ABC this week, that public conversation is starting.
Suicide prevention is complex and requires a multi-dimensional approach. I have sat on several advisory committees writing suicide prevention strategies. I have been part of many roundtable discussions with the world’s leading suicide prevention researchers and practitioners on what the evidence indicates needs to be done to lower the suicide rate. But in all these strategies and discussions, I believe there is one protective factor that has not been more forefront in our deliberations — and that is the role of compassion and kindness.
World Health organization states that suicide prevention is everyone’s business. The Dalai Lama reminds the world that “compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”
I have lived with an enduring melancholic depression for most of my life. For most of those years it has been manageable and not interfered greatly with my day-to-day functioning. My episodes of clinical depression have been short and I had enough resiliency to navigate my way through the darkness. At times it felt hopeless, but I never experienced despair. However in recent years, I have experienced a deep and long-term depression. In my early 50s, I didn’t seem to have the energy to fight the depression. I caved into the constant bombardment of depressive and distorted thinking that framed my life as failure and futility, resulting in self-loathing. My sense of personal and professional efficacy and confidence eroded, and for the first time in my life, death seemed more attractive than living.
As I come out the other side of this destructive period in my life, I have been reflecting on what was it that kept me alive. What helped when I was lying in my bedroom for days too scared to leave it, or when I had to lock the balcony doors and give the key to someone else because I couldn’t trust myself not to jump off my apartment building, or when I gripped for dear life to railings at train stations while the almost deafening intrusive voice in my head said how easy it would be to jump in front of the approaching train. The answer: the compassion and kindness of others for I was incapable of being compassionate and kind to myself.
During my most darkest hours filled with dread and despair, I wondered what people would think of my life’s work in suicide prevention if I killed myself. Would they see me as a fraud? I thought about the many people I have helped over the years who have seen me years later and thanked me and said how glad they were still alive. I thought about all the things I have said to people, challenging their distorted thinking, helping them to find the voice within them that still cried out they wanted to live. But none of that was enough to instill in me hope or a desire to live again. It wasn’t someone asking me “R u ok?” I got asked that many times but like many men, I lied and minimized my pain and said “I’m fine, just going through a bit of a rough patch.”
It was acts of compassion and kindness that were able to break through the darkness and despair and remind me that that there were people who cared for me. It was their actions that muted my internal destructive voice and shouted boldly the message I have said to many people over the years, “Your life does matter and the world will be fundamentally different without you.” It was the mystery friend who anonymously mailed me $50 every week so I could buy food. It was the friends who even though I never answered my phone or replied to their texts, kept me leaving me messages of hope or reminding me how important my friendship was to them.
As they say, actions speak louder than words. It is acts of compassion or kindness that are more likely to interrupt the suicidal thought than any words. The effectiveness of phone lines such as Lifeline does not come from some telephone listening skills training. It is the fact that these generous volunteers are a testament, on behalf of us all, that there is someone who gives a damn, that people are not alone in their despair. It is compassion and kindness, showing unconditional positive regard, being present or attentively listening that connects us in our humanity, and connection is one the most protective factors against suicide.
Sociologically, it can be argued that the rise in suicide is in part symbolic and even a by-product of a throwaway society. Something doesn’t work, it is often easier to throw it away than get it fixed. Throwing your life away may seem easier than sticking with it and getting it fixed. I am spurred on in my work by the words of Pope Francis: “We must never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts!..No one is disposable.” It was the compassion and kindness that allowed me to finally say I was not disposable, that enabled me to re-engage with the world, to regain hope and embark on my current journey of healing and recovery.
I write this not as some form of self-indulgent catharsis. My story is not unique. I have heard it from many men. Their stories can be summed up by a suicidal 45-year-old man whose business had failed, his marriage broken up and he had lost custody of his kids. In the middle of one night I sat with him on a milk crate in an almost unfurnished bedsit listening to his pain. He felt alone, betrayed and was filled with shame and failure as a husband and a dad because he couldn’t provide for his family. He told me how his friends and family had gathered around his ex-partner and children offering support. He looked at me soullessly and asked, “Who brought me my casserole?”
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
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