The Samaritans are one of the major organisations relying on volunteers to assist the suicidal and those just needing someone to talk to
Yesterday Erica and I received some bad news. The daughter of a friend of ours had tried to commit suicide. As I write this I do not know whether that bid has been successful as she is still having tests done in hospital and it’s a 50/50 chance. As you might imagine her parents are distraught. They are asking the same question that anyone would ask in these circumstances, “What did we do wrong?” The answer, of course, is likely to be nothing. Who knows why people get depressed, become mentally unwell and in extremis seek to take their own life?
One of the big causes of mental illness is certainly a change in circumstances, usually for the worse. Becoming unemployed; losing your home; losing a loved one all feature highly in the league table for creating depression. But there are other factors as well. Another set of causes come from substance dependency be that food, drink or drugs. Obesity is another major cause of unhappiness as are the stresses I have been thinking about this as I prepare some thoughts for a speech I am making about loneliness.
Loneliness is a killer. We all say that we want some time alone and that is easy for us to say and for us to achieve when you have a busy life. Erica and I have just had a marvellous Christmas where, apart from our children and grandchildren, we saw hardly anyone. We revelled in the peace and quiet and the ability just to be together and share time and activity. But what if we didn’t have each other? What if we didn’t have 3 children and four grandchildren around the corner? What if we didn’t have loads of friends and acquaintances ready when we re-entered the hurly-burly after the holiday season as over?
That is the sad reality of life for many people especially as they age. As you get older your friends start dying and you lose your mobility. Your world shrinks and you become dependent. Perhaps that not too bad if you are 80+ because you can over time adjust to it even though that is not the way it should be or needs to be. But what if you have no friends at the age of 25. You can have a busy and fulfilling job and still go home to loneliness and despair. You might be in a marriage but find that when the kids leave home you become lonely with your life partner.
For some reason we are afraid to talk about these issues. Is it because we can see mental illness and it is hard to measure it? You can of course measure the health effects of it. Is it because we don’t think it exists? It does. 20%+ of us will have mental health issues for at least part of our life. Is it because we think people who have a mental condition are skivers? It is certainly true that we lose millions of days of working time each year to these issues. Is it because we are scared of mentally ill people? Well certainly they have been demonised in the past with some people equating mental illness to a range of psychotic actions such as rape, violence and murder.
I suspect all those are true but I don’t think that they are the biggest reasons. I think that we are scared of talking about mental health issues because we are scared of becoming mentally ill. The brain is an incredible place. What’s stored there is us. If you are religious that surely is where you think your soul is contained. If you are not then you can see it is a repository of all your memories; experiences and knowledge. What is in it defines YOU in a way that no other party of the body can.
Key times for depression and suicide are after Christmas and after holidays. Being flung togetehr with people you find you don’t really like can be a real downer!
There is no doubt that mental health issues are given a second rate service in the NHS despite the best efforts of campaigners to change things. We often treat the effects of such illness rather than the condition itself because we can often see those effects physically. This must change.
We all need to put pressure on the NHS to fully recognise the needs short, medium and long-term of the mentally ill. Like many other conditions early diagnosis and support can lead to the elimination or amelioration of the condition. Many people with severe depression recover. Others need small amounts of help by medicines of even better social interaction and live healthy and active lives.
But it is not just down to the NHS it is down to all of us. There are four things that we can all do:
- Be careful of our language. I recently described a group of people as total nutters. I can partly defend myself by saying that I would never use such a description to someone I thought did have mental issues. BUT the point is I don’t know who that is. I also don’t know what the affects my supposedly light hearted words have on other people to propel them into even more extreme versions of stigmatism of the mentally ill. Appropriate use of language is one of my New Year resolutions on day 3 I am doing okay!
- Look out for people in your community and try to offer them some comfort. Sometimes just spending a couple of minutes chatting to people on the way to the shops can have a great impact, especially if you are the only person they have spoken to that day. A little bit of kindness when it is just helping get that shopping in or checking whether a neighbour is able to get their medicine is just so important.
- Lobby MPs, Lords and others to get them to understand the need. Talk to people like Norman Lamb or our own local Labour MP Luciana Berger who are highly targeted on this issue but need our help.
- Help charities and other organisations which provide help. The Samaritans, for example, are a fine organisation that help bring many people back from the brink but they are under-resourced in terms of money and volunteers.
Of course none of this can prevent mental illness occurring and the fact that this can, in extremis, lead to suicide or potential suicide situations. My friends have a strong and supportive family in which their daughter always played a full part. You can see now how their family is reacting and pulling together to do everything that they can. Not for the girl, that is now in the lap of the gods, but for all those who sit and wait, and hope and are thinking about what they must do whichever way the coin lands.
Tonight I will be thinking about that young girl. Help me make sure that my own resolve to deal with these issues is a strong in six weeks’ time or 6 years’ time. Together we can help the mentally ill. Together we must help them.
If you want to help the Samaritans or donate to them they can be contacted at http://www.samaritans.org