In this blog for World Suicide Prevention Day, Ellie Wildbore, expert by experience and member of SHSC's research team, writes about her experience of suicide and how she wants to use that experience to remove stigma and improve services so that fewer people die because of suicide.
On Sunday 10 September it is World Suicide Prevention Day. I always have a bit of a problem with awareness days, or one day to think about a topic that affects people 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the case of suicide, it kind of feeds into the idea that a suicide, or a suicide attempt, is a one-off point in time. Which is so far from the truth - whether it is an attempt or a completed suicide - it is highly unlikely that it came about from one moment in time, and entirely impossible that the event is over in one moment in time, a day, a week, a month or even a year. The ripple effects of suicide – whether someone lives or dies – last an eternity.
Suicide is the biggest cause of death in males under 50 (Department of Health and Social Care, 2022), and over 5,000 suicides are registered each year in England alone. And those are just the ones that have been found as suicides, this number is probably much higher as not every suicide is identified as such.
As someone who has a long history of mental health problems, and involvement with services. Suicide has affected my life greatly – both personally, and those around me. Aged 35 I don’t have enough fingers and toes left to count the amount of people whose paths crossed with mine at some point in our mental health journey, who have unfortunately lost their battle and are no longer with us. At my age, I should only know a few people who have died – but instead my phone book is full of numbers of dead people. I’ve known people who have completed suicide because they couldn’t get past the grief of a loved one completing suicide. I know people who have survived suicide attempts but who’s life has changed immeasurably due to the severity of the physical injury or effects from the attempt. Whether you live or die, the effects continue long after the actual act of suicide.
Earlier this year, the UK experienced its largest ever suicide prevention campaign, as the beautiful Baton of Hope https://batonofhopeuk.org/ travelled up and down the country – carried by those who have been personally affected by suicide. Founded by two fathers who recently lost their sons to suicide, the campaign hopes to start conversations, reduce stigma, improve the help available for people and reduce the taboo around talking about suicide – a barrier to so many asking for help. I had the honour of carrying the baton on part of its Sheffield tour, and the deeply moving experience of being involved in a day where the city came together, to share experiences, support each other, and most importantly, talk about suicide and remember those that have been lost.
I have spent most of my adulthood chronically suicidal – meaning that even if I wasn’t actively making suicide attempts, I definitely didn’t want to live, and suicide wasn’t far from my mind. I have had many attempts on my own life – some more serious than others, and many with lasting physical or mental effects. Although I received support from services, it was an inherently lonely time in my life as I felt unable to communicate my real thoughts, feelings and fears and felt very misunderstood. And I think loneliness and isolation is one of the prevailing features of suicide and suicidality. The Baton of Hope tour represented the exact opposite – the feeling was one of togetherness and camaraderie. One of the outstanding features of the day was the South Yorkshire Police officer, Steve, who walked the entire way alongside the various baton bearers. When asked why he was doing this, it turned out his shift had actually finished halfway through the day, and that it was a personal decision to keep walking with the baton. “Because we, as a police force, care”. Other people involved with the day included local celebrities, MPs, sports people, members of the public, emergency services, teachers, NHS workers. There were young people, old people, families, people by themselves, people walking the route, people wheeling the route. Suicide. Affects. Everybody.
Trigger warning for suicide methods in the following 2 paragraphs
For me, my leg of the baton tour took a particularly meaningful turn when it turned out the person I was passing the baton to was a uniformed member of the fire service. At first, I was anxious. I have Complex-PTSD and a lot of it is to do with fire, I am incredibly scared of anything relating to fire and I think at this point my mind had to go into autopilot to manage the transition. It was only afterwards that I really reflected on the personal significance of handing the baton to a member of the fire service. In 2015, not really caring if I lived or died, I set fire to myself whilst an inpatient on a mental health ward. Fire has always held a significance in my life for various reasons but now, after that incident, has become something so terrifying that it affects every single thing I do in every moment of every day.
In 2021, hopeless and lost, having spent almost 18 months “locked out” instead of locked down, on top of managing complex mental health problems, I had attempted suicide – using a number of methods combined. I was pulled from a noose in a tree, unconscious, by the fire service and resuscitated on the grass nearby. At the time, I wasn’t able to be grateful, it took me months to move on from that suicide attempt, and the reality of the disappointment of waking up, in an even worse position than I was in before (detained under the mental health act) was too hard to bear. Nothing had changed in my life, I was still living in an impossible, unsafe and exhausting situation whilst trying to keep up appearances with going to work and socialising. No one talks about this. The sheer horror and disappointment of waking up from a suicide attempt knowing you have to face another day. People around will often tell you how lucky you are to be alive, how fortunate you were saved. But I can honestly tell you, nothing feels unluckier.
And this is why we need better, preventative support for people – before suicide becomes the only option. Because coming back from that point is hard, so hard. But stopping someone getting there in the first place is so much easier.
It can and does get better. After 15 years of struggling with suicidal thoughts, it’s now not something that affects me on a daily basis. Yes, suicide is still an option – and I think it’s important to note that sometimes what keeps people alive is knowing that that option is there, should they need it. But I have so many more options now, that even when those thoughts do pass by, or things are unbearable – it’s not a thought I entertain for long. 3 months after the tree situation, my nephew was born. And for me that imperceptibly changed everything. And that thing is different for everyone. Never presume or suggest protective factors, if people can’t precure it themselves, then its not a true protective factor.
Although I have reached very low points since then, something has changed for me, and suicide is no longer an option. I’m finally able to say – despite the complexities and difficulties in my life – that I am grateful to the emergency services for saving me that day.
Suicide, alongside self-harm, remains a hugely taboo subject. Even in a world that is becoming more accepting of mental health problems such as anxiety or depression – there is still an additional stigma when it comes to anything more sinister. Of the friends that I have lost personally to suicide, many were in contact with mental health services and several were in mental health units at the time of their death. Healthcare staff sometimes worry about broaching these conversations in case of triggering people into having suicidal ideas. Trust me, having a conversation with someone is much more likely to be a huge relief for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. Unsurprisingly, its quite hard to bring up these thoughts and feeling in conversation, by asking someone about suicide, you may well have been the first person to have opened up an opportunity for someone to speak out about how they are feeling.
Additionally, help in the aftermath of suicide, or suicide attempts is so important, yet so hard to come by. I am acutely aware that people around me have had numerous times where they truly believed I was no longer alive – but they will have received no support for going through that experience. The Baton of Hope tour highlighted that there are more and more organisations providing support to friends and families affected by suicide – organisations such as Amparo (https://amparo.org.uk/) offer support following suicide.
As mental health services, I want us to be better at being there for people before suicide becomes a viable option. So many people don’t ask for help because they are afraid of being met by invalidation, accusations of attention seeking, or “join our 18 month waiting list” – and unfortunately these are things that people have experienced. My hope is for a tomorrow where people won’t die in silence and isolation. Where conversations about suicidal feelings are not taboo. Where when someone asks for help, it is available in a timely and appropriate manner. Where being in mental health services instils hope rather than hopelessness.
Department of Health and Social Care. (2022) ‘Men urged to talk about mental health to prevent suicide’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/men-urged-to-talk-about-mental-health-to-prevent-suicide#:~:text=Suicide%20is%20the%20biggest%20cause,suicides%20each%20year%20are%20men.