World Suicide Prevention Day: treating the disease

I don’t really know how to write this piece. In fact, I hesitated to write it at all because, until now, I’ve only shared these thoughts with a small handful of people, and it feels rather daunting laying it all out in public. I do so, however, in the hope that someone out there will find it helpful or illuminating, or at least that it will fulfil the ‘raising awareness’ remit of World Suicide Prevention Day.

I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for a number of years. Looking back now, for a number of years longer than I dared to recognise it, which I guess is the same for most sufferers who grew up at a time when such things weren’t really discussed. Before the pandemic hit, I would characterise my illness as, I suppose, ‘intermittent and manageable’, but the past year-and-a-half has amplified it to an almost intolerable level. Where before I would have maybe two to three weeks of feeling, to a greater or lesser degree, fairly unpleasant, followed by the same period (or often longer) where I felt largely normal, over the past 18 months those periods of ‘remission’ have become fewer and further between, the depressive periods longer, deeper and more frequent. I now consider myself lucky if I get two or three days of feeling remotely human in between what feels like a virtually constant and crushing sense of despair.

I want to make it clear at this point that I don’t tell you this because I think I deserve your sympathy – I know I have it much easier than so many others have had it, and continue to have it, as this pandemic rages on. I’m not rich, but I’m reasonably financially secure. I don’t live in a house with an abusive partner, or with people who don’t accept me for who I am. I’m not cramped up in a tiny flat with no outdoor space, and I don’t have to make the unenviable choice between going into a non-Covid-secure workplace or not being able to pay my bills. In so many ways, I have it easy, which often only adds to the guilt I feel about being so deeply fucking miserable all the time. And I know, too, that this is patently ridiculous, that we don’t get to simply choose not to be depressed because our lives are, on most objective levels, pretty privileged.

I won’t bore you with the protracted details of why, as I see it, I feel the way I do, but suffice to say the unresolved emotional baggage of a late-out gay man in a climate where homophobic hate is becoming ever more commonplace, coupled with an extended period of being cut off from my community and the general anxiety surrounding this seemingly interminable Covid-19 hellscape, have left me in a pretty fragile condition. And I suppose you could argue that the continuation of this situation is now, at least in part, a thing I’m doing to myself. I’m vaccinated, virtually all restrictions have been lifted, and there’s nothing legally preventing me from re-connecting with my community and going about life as if all were normal. But it’s not normal. Cases, deaths and hospitalisations continue to rise. My son isn’t vaccinated and, by some estimates, one in seven young people who contract the virus are experiencing ‘Long Covid’ symptoms, with who-knows-what impact on their long-term development and overall health. I can’t just put the cue in the rack with the current landscape as it is, so I continue to sacrifice my own mental health for what I see as the greater good. None of which was inevitable, of course, but that’s a whole other article (and one I’ve possibly written at some point between January 2020 and now).

Anyway, getting to the point after quite a lot more introductory rambling than I had anticipated, I’ve now reached the stage where suicidal thoughts have become part of my daily experience. It started slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, and eventually emerged as a persistent and malevolent shadow lurking in the corner of my room. And every other room. I’d only had such thoughts on one occasion before the pandemic hit, when I was going through a particularly rough patch, but since January of this year, it’s become a recurring, almost perpetual theme. What began as the occasional troubling thought has grown into a thing I will think about at least once a week, and sometimes as much as several times a day.

Now, I don’t want to alarm anyone. I’m not planning to kill myself. I haven’t hurt myself, and I have no intention of doing so. At this stage, my relationship with suicidal ideation is fairly passive, mainly taking the form of thoughts like, “I can’t imagine dealing with this for another n years, wouldn’t it be easier if I just didn’t wake up tomorrow?” or “If I was going to do it, I wonder which way would be quickest/easiest/least painful.” I’m not in any immediate danger, but at the same time, I’m acutely aware that the line between, “Fuck me, I wish this could be over,” and, “I’m going to do something to make this be over,” probably isn’t as wide or as robust as we’d like it to be.

In the brief but merciful periods between these depressive episodes, I often feel foolish for even having had these thoughts. Again, looking at it through an objective lens, what reason do I have for feeling this way, with my comfortable existence and my loving, supportive family? I tell myself I will cease to entertain such risible notions in the future, and I mean to do so. Right up until the point I begin to entertain them again.

I don’t know what the answer to this is, so I’m sorry if you were looking for any kind of meaningful insight. I guess if we could reason away such destructive thoughts, no one would ever take their own lives. What I do know is that it helps to talk about it. If the people closest to me didn’t know how I was feeling, how could they look out for me? And if, as was the case when I was a child (or even a young man) no one ever spoke about such things publicly, how would anyone know they weren’t alone, that what they were feeling was not a sign of weakness or inadequacy, but a facet of mental ill-health shared by numerous others from all different walks of life.

Talking, though, however helpful it may be, is not enough. Whilst it’s undoubtedly true that anyone can suffer with depression or suicidal thoughts, it’s often a hell of a lot more likely for those who are in some way marginalised or oppressed. Rates of poor mental health and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community, for example, are still disproportionately high and, as shouldn’t need to be pointed out but invariably does, we’re not depressed and/or killing ourselves because we’re queer. We’re depressed and/or killing ourselves because of the way you, the cis-het majority, mistreat us, malign us and attack us for being queer. The same applies to anyone who suffers inequality or marginalisation: removing the inequality is no guarantee they won’t still suffer with mental illness, but having access to secure housing, sufficient food, affordable healthcare, inclusive education and the opportunity to exist without abuse or denigration, will certainly help to ameliorate its most damaging effects in a huge number of cases. 

So, yes, do speak to your friends. Check in on them, make sure they’re ok. That’s important, and you should definitely do that. But very often, it’s treating the symptom and not the disease. What will have an equal or even greater impact this World Suicide Prevention Day is resolving to fight inequality in all its forms, thereby helping to remove one of the greatest amplifiers of mental ill-health and preventing or mitigating a huge number of cases before someone becomes so desperate that they’re thinking of ending their own life. Let it be known that you support LGBTQ rights, black lives, a non-punitive welfare system, an accepting and welcoming approach to asylum and immigration, and any other policies and interventions that reduce the harms caused to those less fortunate than yourselves. And, most importantly, act accordingly. Vote accordingly. Take measurable, practical steps to embody those beliefs. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that one person’s actions can be the difference between life and death for someone who finds themselves in such a precarious position that suicide is a realistic option.

In closing, I’d like to say to anyone who has seen any part of themselves in this article, that you will almost inevitably read some hateful or negative responses in the replies (mainly because a lot of people exist who, perhaps understandably, think I’m a cunt). Please don’t take those horrible responses and apply them to yourselves. If you’re feeling in any way similar to how I’ve described, you are not weak, you are not self-pitying, and you are definitely not alone. Find someone to speak to. Please. You’d be surprised how willing many people are to listen. It almost certainly won’t solve your problems overnight, but there’s a decent chance it will help you avoid making a decision you can never unmake.