Photo: Joey Yu


When it comes to suicide, awkward conversations can save lives

It’s not easy to talk about suicide, says Poorna Bell. But if you know someone who is in despair, turn up, be a nuisance – and ask them about it, no matter how uncomfortable you feel

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By Poorna Bell on

Death attracts clichés like fruit flies to a banana, because they fill the gaps of awkwardness.

One of the things you hear most when people are trying to make sense of that most senseless of deaths – suicide – is “they had so much to live for”. I heard it repeatedly when my husband, Rob, died by suicide in 2015.

In the current wake of two prominent and public losses to suicide – Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – this phrase is being used over and over again, in the midst of articles listing their achievements and zest for life. In Bourdain’s case, it's underpinned by an interview he did with People magazine, where he is quoted as saying: “I also do feel I have things to live for.”

The problem with the “they had so much to live for” phrase is that it is attempting to make a clumsy connection between suicide and the trappings of money and power in a person’s life. In our narrow and simplistic either/or perspective on the world, too many of us believe that a person at risk of suicide is someone who is alone. Someone who has a sad, unloved existence and doesn’t have friends or family to live for. There is often a default implication that they are somehow responsible for the pain they felt – when, in fact, it was clearly so overwhelming and not within their control that the only recourse was to take their own life. Too frequently, too many of us believe that other people or material things give you a reason for your existence.

Although male suicide is still ridiculously high and teen suicide is rising, most people don’t need a reason for their existence. We simply exist. A person likely to kill themselves is doing so because of a pain separate to any and all love and success that exists in their lives. As many people who have attempted suicide and survived will tell you, it’s not about a fixation with death – it’s wanting the relentlessness to stop.  

The reason these deaths take us by surprise is because we assumed by proxy of their success and social network that they wouldn’t have a reason to feel despair or hopelessness. But, speaking from experience, if we don’t expand our idea of what suicide is, we’re isolating the very people we want to help.  

There are different schools of thought on how you can help someone who is at risk of suicide. I can only speak as to what I’ve learnt from Rob passing away – and from me subsequently feeling at risk. The biggest problem is that a person at risk of suicide is unlikely to be able to tell you that they are at risk of suicide. We can tell them to ask for help, we can talk about the need to create a positive mental-health culture free of stigma, but it’s not as simple as that.

When your life is literally in your own two hands, you don't have the mental space to deal with someone needing to check their fucking calendar two weeks from Tuesday

The best way forward, I think, is a two-pronged approach of being non-judgemental and letting them know that you’ll be there as support, so they can reach out if they need. But it’s also actually being there as support.

We found out the hard way that there are lots of people who say “anything you need” but aren’t there. When your life is literally in your own two hands, you don't have the mental space to deal with someone needing to check their fucking calendar two weeks from Tuesday.

I don’t mean to say that anyone is in any way responsible for another person’s life, because when someone you love dies from suicide, you punish yourself well enough for what you perceive you didn’t do. But, as a general rule of thumb, good suicide prevention means proactively checking in on a friend or a loved one if you think something isn’t quite right with their behaviour. Then, engaging them in conversations about how they are doing, even if it feels awkward and uncomfortable for you. I remember when Rob told me about a suicide attempt he made back in 2013, when he was very depressed, and I completely emotionally and verbally shut down around it. I found the idea of him being dead so horrifying I didn't ask him questions about it – not how he got to that point or how he felt afterwards.

Not everyone who kills themselves is mentally ill, so if you have a friend who is going through a tough time but also seems to be pushing people away, make a nuisance of yourself and meet up with them. And if they do open up to you, ask them questions and try to get them to engage in services, whether that’s charities such as Mind or CALM, or suicidal sanctuaries such as MayTree. Ask questions such as: have they gone to see their GP? Are they getting any kind of professional help beyond trying to pull themselves through it?

With suicide, restoring self-esteem and a sense of perspective is critical, so find out what they have in their lives that enables that. When I spoke to Natalie Howarth, who runs MayTree, she said that most people come in with their sense of self-worth completely flattened. Understand that it is perfectly possible for people to be two things – they could be a successful businesswoman and still have zero self-worth because of other circumstances in their lives. The chances are, it won’t be any one thing, such as a broken relationship or money worries. It will be linked to something much vaster and deeper than that and, very often, it connects to bigger feelings of shame or an inability to see that things will be different.

I know that when it came to Rob, I was so naive about it. I, too, was fooled by the idea that he had a good job, me, our family, our dog, our house – a thousand reasons to live for. And yet he still felt so terrible that he was compelled to take his own life. I didn’t ask him about the things that made life so unbearable, that made it necessary to leave in that moment.

And I think, if we are to support the people in our lives and understand the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain better, that is the real question we need to start asking.


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Photo: Joey Yu
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