We Need To Talk About Suicide
By Rebecca Shaw
Illustration by Marcela Restrepo
On the day of this being written, the Australian writing community is grieving the one-year anniversary of a beloved member taking her own young life. It is a coincidence that I write about this topic on this day, but it feels like it is an almost unavoidable one. To find a moment to write about suicide on a day when nobody I know has died by suicide, when nobody I love is grieving someone who took their own life, when nobody is being remembered for dying this way, when nobody is considering suicide? It just seems like a tragically impossibly brief window to catch.
By far, I have known more people who have died by suicide than by any other way of dying. And by far, it is still discussed the least. That doesn’t seem to stop it happening, and it certainly doesn’t help those of us who are left behind.
So I’ve decided not to stay quiet about it anymore. I’ve decided that the implicit cone of silence rule that exists around suicide, a rule ingrained into us all over years of stigma and shame, must be broken. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be spoken about carefully, and that professional advice and standards shouldn’t be considered — it just means that this doesn’t also mean it should never be spoken about at all. If we don’t talk about the fact that people die by suicide, how can we ever fully address why it happens, and how to lower its prevalence?
Growing up in regional Queensland, my life has been touched by suicide countless times. I have too many stories of people dying by their own hand, mainly young men. I have too many memories of finding out that someone had died, experiencing the shock and the grief, and then the conversation stopping. No ongoing discussions about how they died. Or why they died. Or why people we knew kept. on. dying.
There was Mitchell. Arriving at school in Grade 10 and finding out that Mitchell, one of the most popular boys in the entire school had died this way. The boy who was in a completely different social group to me, the handsome and talented and athletic one; but also the one who had done backstage Rock Eisteddfod with me a few months earlier, and had been compassionate and kind and generous to a weird fat girl he had no obligation to. I remember clearly the absolute bewilderment that enveloped us. Him? We couldn’t understand.
Nobody had ever spoken to me about mental illness before that time, and nobody then, on that day or any day after, in a school in a regional town filled with potential suicide risks, spoke to the reeling and bewildered teenagers about suicide.
Nobody spoke to me about it the day a few years later when a shop was shut in the Toowoomba food court I cleaned part-time, when it was whispered to me that the beautiful shy lad with a mop of curls who gave me extra ice cream in my milkshakes and talked to me about The Cure had died by suicide. Whispered like it was a secret, like it was something to be ashamed of. The end result being, of course, that his death was forgotten too quickly, that we all moved on, and that, in something that pains me to admit — I just can’t quite remember his name.
Then, Thomas. A name I will never forget. A name that is the reason Christmas has been changed for me, forever. The name of my cousin who had the same cheeky grin and mop of black hair from the time he was born until the last time I saw him. He was 21 then, a talented Rugby League prospect, walking around the house tossing a ball around with his brother. We said goodbye, and we didn’t hug. My cousins and me aren’t really huggers. I thought about that a lot later.
The next time Thomas fully entered my atmosphere was when I was congratulating him after the birth of his daughter. He seemed so happy. Then, the next time I thought about him was about three months later when I was in the library and my mum called me, crying. I remember it so clearly because she very rarely cries, and my stomach had dropped before my brain even registered that something must be terribly wrong. And so it was. Thomas had killed himself. His mother found him on the 20th of December 2012. I can’t speak to, or even begin to imagine that pain. I attended his funeral with my entire extended family, including his three-month-old daughter, on Christmas Eve.
David. That is my father’s name. He is alive, but it wasn’t until after the death of Thomas that I finally forced my way through the thick layer of cement that had been poured over the open wound that was the story of his mother. He had never spoken of it. There were only vagaries, and whispers, and shame surrounding it. My dad’s oldest brother had left home early, so that is how the second oldest of six, my 14-year-old father, was the one to find his mother after she had taken her own life. Because of the shame, their father insisted they tell people she slipped and hit her head. My dad did not receive help. Because of the stigma, the family did not receive much outside support. They all did their best, but some of the kids ended up in foster care. The only girl ran away, only to eventually die of cirrhosis of the liver from years of hard drinking, in some tragic way a similar if not slower fate to her mothers.
How had I reached my 30s without ever knowing all of this? How much help is not given to people who need it because of societal rules like those that governed my family, my school, and my city? How do these outdated feelings of shame around mental illness and suicidal feelings affect those who could never then conceive of speaking up and asking for help?
Another main reason I want these rules to be broken is because if you have lost someone to suicide, you know it is different to losing them another way. You know that there is still such shame attached. You know that people who do it are still thought of by some as selfish and weak. You know people don’t understand, and won’t try to. You know they are much more uncomfortable talking about it than other types of death.
So then. Not only do you have the already impossible grief of losing a loved one, you have other feelings like anger and bafflement and guilt that can come along with this type of death specifically, and then on top of all of that you aren’t given the same amount and same kind of emotional support as others are.
All of this must feed into how people struggling with these thoughts are supported and treated before it even gets to that final stage. And all of this means we need to speak up, and speak out, and make it okay to talk about, and to deal with. We need to break the silence.