In my own head, there is a risk that I take for granted that suicide happens and, somehow, if I’m not careful, I’ll begin to believe that suicide is inevitable. It simply is not. It is not inevitable. Suicide is complex and sensitive. We do well to ponder our own beliefs about it if we are to help others navigate their thoughts on the subject, especially when they are faced with it as a possibility for themselves.
Last week, I attended the National Suicide Prevention Alliance conference in London. The room was filled with hundreds of people from across the British Isles. All of them were there because of suicide. Some of them were there because of a suicide.
During the conference, I was struck by many things, mostly by the commitment and zeal of those attending, eager to understand more and willing to find allies in the common goal of suicide prevention.
Many of those attending were people who had personal experience of suicide, losing somebody to suicide or caring for somebody who is, or has been, considering it.
I was moved to say publicly that we need better and more meaningfully to include children and young people in the planning for any new strategy that purports to protect their very lives.
Nothing about them, without them.
Suicide is their greatest risk and we should ask for their help in understanding how to mitigate it. Yes, children often have ideas about suicide and so they will undoubtedly also have some solutions to help prevent it. We may need to learn from them more and trust their judgement more than we sometimes do.
I also attended a smaller conference midweek where, alongside friends and colleagues, PAPYRUS and Universities UK shared newly-produced guidance for what to do and how to be when a possible suicide takes place among student populations.
Though student suicides are relatively rare, nevertheless we should pay careful attention to prevention, and plan for what to do in such an event. This planning is not to suggest inevitability. It is vital to be ready to give the right care It recognises that good postvention (the care that follows a suicide) can itself be preventative of other deaths which could follow, linked to the first tragedy.
I was keen to remind delegates that universities provide amazing support for young people. University Staff often forget that when they read headlines of when things go wrong. It’s important we don’t forget the good work and use that to scaffold together what could be even better.
Again, at this event to launch our guidance, there was a palpable desire for knowledge and information, and a willingness to share experience that will help others to protect and promote life when it is at risk. That passion and commitment to learn how to protect life drive a coach and horses through any attitude which suggests an inevitability in suicide.
I then had the privilege of sharing two days with seventeen people, learning together how to apply skills to intervene when suicide thoughts become part of someone’s story.
Among those attending the training workshop were people across the age spectrum, people who had little or no experience of suicide, some with professional connections to suicide, some with very personal experience of loss to suicide and, as with most groups of people, some who had thought about suicide or who may have engaged in suicide behaviour themselves.
Why am I, and I’m sure they, so tired today? Not because of the conferences. Not because of the workshops. Not because of the travel. It can be tiring when we walk alongside pain and loss, when we bring close to ourselves the times when the river of life seems to almost dry up or its flow becomes thin.
It’s tiring and challenging to hear about stretched or absent support systems, when we recognise our own inability or lack of resource to help adequately; and it can make us feel less hopeful than we might want to.
Sharing stories and using their power to heal us, teach us lessons and protect others, brings us together and creates strength. This is the strength that sustains communities and helps them to reject the belief that suicide is inevitable.
And hope is what I am left with:
- I don’t know that those attending the national conference will be more kind because of their day together, but I’m pretty sure we will try to. That gives me hope.
- I don’t know whether university staff will use the guidance shared at this week’s event but I’m pretty sure they will behave differently and with more confidence. That gives me hope.
- I don’t know whether those attending a suicide prevention training workshop last week will take time for their own self-care today, but I hope they will remember that they can and should take time to restore energy and find life for themselves too. And that gives me hope.
- I do know that, whilst I was doing what I was doing last week, my PAPYRUS colleagues were doing so many other things to promote life:
- sending and receiving emails, booking training sessions for people, reconciling budgets, ensuring people get paid for their hard work, evaluating our work, preparing funding bids, encouraging fundraisers, listening to calls from concerned others, walking alongside young people and those who care about them, doing webchat with young people with thoughts of suicide, supporting a new colleague, making sense of a difficult call, navigating online harms, ensuring our buildings are safe spaces, making cups of tea for a colleague, reflecting on their practice, seeking advice, welcoming guests, engaging colleagues in shaping our commitment to Equality and Diversity, referring people to partners when we need to work together with different organisations to do a better job, working in communities, inviting companies to spread our messages among their workforce, challenging ministers, debating, paying bills, caring, crying with those who need that, promoting our work on social and in the print and broadcast media, having difficult conversations in and out of work, holding it together when sometimes it’s very hard – and so much more.
And that gives me and many others so much hope.
As the week ended, I was reminded again that self-care is an integral part of sustaining life. Looking after each other, and allowing people (and other creatures!) to care for us, are crucial life-promoting skills and we need to practice and hone them daily.
Suicide is not inevitable. Nor is life. Life – our own life and the life we see and enable in others – is a gift, and we must handle it with respect and care.