Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Can there be life after suicide?

I caught up with Angela Samata's affecting documentary Life After Suicide last night. She takes the time to explore the effect of suicide on family and friends, the help available for those who feel suicidal, and ongoing research into why one person might develop suicidal feelings when another doesn't. She's thoughtful, sensitive and honest, and brings together a rounded view of suicide that we don't often see.

Angela has a personal pull to the subject as her husband Mark took his own life eleven years ago, leaving her with two young sons. Mark's death was totally unexpected and left her baffled and traumatised. She explained how particularly difficult it is when someone dies by suicide, because of the stigma and shame attached. She found help from SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) People can attend SOBS groups and explore their feelings with other people who are going through a similar experience. I have had several clients who have found comfort and support through this organisation.

I was already aware of some of the statistics - that 4 out of 5 people who end their lives are male, and that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 - but I think they bear repeating here as they are stark and shocking. I didn't know that most don't leave a note, as was the case with Mark. Angela, and others in the programme, struggled with a need to understand why their loved ones had chosen to kill themselves. Which is where Prof Rory O'Connor of Glasgow University comes in. He sees suicide not as a selfish act, but an attempt to end unbearable pain. He's studied 2000 people who have made suicide attempts and is attempting to find answers about what causes people to end their lives.  He believes that in the majority of cases they will have developed 'constricted thinking', and this is likely to include feeling trapped, humiliated and defeated, emotions that seem to be a potentially toxic and lethal combination.  One questionnaire his interviewees complete probes their feelings of entrapment, requiring them to rate how applicable certain statements are to them: 'I feel trapped by my obligations', 'I am powerless to change things', 'I would just like to run away'. Angela commented that these were quite poignant declarations, and wondered if people were reluctant to take part - on the contrary, Rory explained, they tended to be glad to be asked, and relieved to be able to explore their feelings.

Angela also attended Maytree which describes itself as a sanctuary for the suicidal. Extraordinarily, considering the statistics above, there is only one such organisation in the country. I knew of its existence, but hearing Angela Rodriguez speak about the work they do was inspiring. People who are suicidal can stay for five days in this calm and simply furnished house, where the curtain poles are collapsible. It is agreed with each guest that staff will intervene if they make a suicide attempt. On the wall is a quote: 'Every day is a gift - that's why we call it the present'. Guests can sit together and talk, and Angela sees the power of suicidal people realising that they are not alone, and that other people feel as desperate as they do at times.

The programme also highlighted the work of Winston's Wish with bereaved children, and Samaritans You don't have to be suicidal to call Samaritans - the volunteers are there to listen and to help you explore your feelings, without offering judgments or telling you what to do. If you are thinking of ending your life, they will listen without intervening.

I was very moved by the willingness of Angela, and many other participants in the programme, to share some extremely difficult feelings. Her own greatest fear is that her openness with her sons about how their father died might lead them to think it was an option for them if they found themselves overwhelmed or unhappy, and there was a touching segment where she expresses this concern to her younger son. Ultimately the message from Angela, and others in the programme, was the importance of talking about how we feel - 'You can rebuild your life if you can talk about it'.

If you or someone you know is struggling at the moment, or has been affected by suicide in some way, you might want to watch the programme: You can search the Counselling Directory if you feel that you or someone you know might benefit from talking to a counsellor about their issues. People are often nervous at first, but in my experience they usually relax into the sessions, and do find that exploring how they're feeling helps them to find a way through.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Daring greatly - Brene Brown on shame

After a break I'm keen to get back to my Perspective posts. And I'm starting with this TED talk, which is well worth a listen. Brene calls shame 'the swampland of the soul' and tells us that shame requires three things to survive: secrecy, silence and judgment. We can combat it by finding empathy, for ourselves, and for others, and by 'daring greatly' - encouraging ourselves to get out there and have a go, with all the risks that entails. She says that shame tells us we're not good enough, and asks us Who do you think you are? And she draws a distinction between shame (feeling I'm a bad person) and guilt (feeling I've done a bad thing). How can we let ourselves be vulnerable, with the risk that allowing ourselves to be seen as we really are may cause us to feel shame? She encourages us to take the risk, because this is how we find creativity and freedom.