Addressing the issue of suicide will never just be about government action
AS I write it’s been 24 hours since the news broke of TV presenter Caroline Flack’s suicide.
Social media is full of conversations about it, profile pictures have been updated to those with the words ‘be kind’, debates are happening about the tabloid press and the TV show Love Island and people are urging each other to be more tolerant, understanding and seek help if they need it.
Heartbreakingly, it has also led many people to reflect publicly on how a loved one’s suicide has affected them. Such posts are not always easy reading or watching but they are important, because they tell the story of the people left behind and the devastating impact that suicide has well into the future. They also show just how many people around us have been affected by suicide, or perhaps even felt suicidal in their lives.
And we need to talk about these things. In Jersey, particularly, we have been slow to recognise that, probably because of our small-island mentality and a fear of being judged in a small community.
Our media for years was dissuaded from talking about it too.
But things are changing, progress is being made. Thanks to campaigners like Andy Le Seelleur, who has spoken of his own wife’s suicide, and changes at the Health Department, collaboration is happening. And, if it comes off, there will be some real positive action on the horizon.
However, addressing the issue of suicide will never just be about government action. It needs to a community-driven response.
Now, more than ever, our society is aware of the importance of mental health. Schools and workplaces promote, encourage and teach about it and as a society we are reminded to look out for one another’s mental health.
A call by Jersey’s medical director of mental health, Dr Miguel Garcia, last year sticks in my mind. He urged people to ask more and listen, really listen, to the answer from people.
We are all guilty of the ‘hi, how are you? Fine thanks, you?’ conversations as we pass someone in the street, make a coffee in the work kitchen or drop the kids at school. When do you give an honest answer? And would you be listening if the person you were talking to did give an honest answer?
There are many important conversations to be had in the wake of Caroline’s decision to take her own life at the age of 40.
And they will include those that relate to the way the national media has treated her in recent years.
But here in Jersey, her case can make an impact too, in a positive way. It reminds us of the simple fact that we never know what someone is going through behind closed doors, or sometimes actually right in front of our noses but we fail to recognise it.
Even beautiful, bubbly, vivacious, wealthy people can have mental health battles and feel there is no way out but to end their own lives.
Her case teaches us to be kinder and less judgmental. And it once again shows how very important it is that we talk about suicide, its impact and how we can prevent it.
As Mr Le Seelleur has pointed out time and time again, however, it is too late to have these discussions when someone has taken their own life, or even when they have become suicidal.
To do it properly we need to go right back to basics.
And at the heart of it, we need to foster a healthy, happy society based on values of respect and an acknowledgment that we are all human beings, many of us vulnerable in some way, with our own battles in life.
Those battles can be big enough already without the added pressure of bullying, including online, shaming, gossip and unfair levels of scrutiny about people’s private lives.
Plus, we need to continue to talk about mental health and suicide to lose the stigmas and let people know that they should never be afraid of seeking help if they need it.
We are getting there on this, but there is no room for complacency.
Some suicides will, sadly, always occur, but many, many others can be prevented.
For the families and friends already left behind, that is no help, of course.
But knowing that action may prevent others having to go through the pain they have faced and continue to face is something, at least.
One of Caroline’s friends, Laura Whitmore, had a strong message for us all when she paid tribute to her following her death: ‘Be kind. Only you are responsible for how you treat others and what you put out in the world.’
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