In my last conversation with Damian Veal, we talked about the statistic that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, why this is not a national scandal and urgently targeted for research and action, and about the incompetence, inappropriateness, and often just sheer absence of available help for those in mental distress, despite claims and advertising to the contrary. I remember similar conversation with Mark Fisher shortly before his death.
I don’t have a positive message or incisive proposal. OK, I agree, keep in touch with yr friends. But “preventing” this would take more than we, as individuals, are capable of—it’s a serious major epidemic of psychic suffering.
As usual, harder to say it better than Robin has, as in a short Twitter thread from earlier today.
I’m likewise struck more and more by just how epidemic this suffering is and what horrifies me most is how infectious it seems.
As a teenager, I knew two people who died by their own hands and I’ve been thinking about them today — both people who I knew of but were on the periphery of my social circle, and both of whom surreally ended up in the local news over the circumstances.
Alissia McCoid was a close friend of a lot of my friends at school but someone who I’d never met personally. She committed suicide in early 2010. There was a lot of talk about how her use of M-CAT had contributed to her low mood and it reached the national papers just prior to that year’s summer of M-CAT hysteria.
I remember attending her funeral in an attempt to offer support to distraught friends and, looking back, I was totally clueless as to what they were going through. I’d had a friend die of cancer far too young when I was 13 and I found that really hard. This must be like that, I thought to myself, but I know now it was completely different.
A few years later, I heard about the death of James Mabbett, an boy who, again, I’d only known peripherally. He was around a lot when I was at primary school. I’m sure I went to his house a few times. He was a friend of my then-best friend’s older brother. He took his own life in 2015 and has since become the face of a major suicide prevention scheme across the UK.
At that time I knew I couldn’t imagine what anyone was going through. It really struck me how James, from the distance at which I knew him at least, had always come across as a gregarious clown who was never without a wide grin on his face, playing practical jokes and having a laugh. Many said it was completely unexpected.
And then, of course, in early 2017, there was Mark Fisher, and that was when I realised what these friends of mine had been going through.
It’s a cliche to speak of depression as a dark cloud, but I can vividly remember the demeanour of all those close to Alissia and James in the aftermath. A dark cloud is precisely how I’d describe it. It is the weight of a proximity to the unthinkable — and after Mark’s death I felt it for myself.
Since then, I’ve been all too aware of just how many people have been dying by their own hands in recent years. Celebrities are the most visible — and there have been so many — but still I hear the murmurings in social circles about distant acquaintances who have done this or that. Hearing of the passing of Damian Veal just last week from Robin was likewise heart-breaking.
This is happening all too frequently. It is truly an epidemic.
So what is to be done? Arran Crawford suggests just how radical a shift in thinking we need:
Increasing suicide rates, drug related deaths, alcohol related deaths, and the shredding of mental health and drug services should be held as the grossest negligence. At the same time we don’t need just more funding but different models of care and treatment.
In recent years, an attempt to change things has largely come from attempts at consciousness raising and raising awareness. The latter has been more successful than the former. It is difficult to live with mental illness, whether your own or someone else’s, domestically and socially, and we all remain terrible at even attempting to embark on the impossible task of sympathising with each other’s inner experiences without it taking on the cloyingly corporate air of rehab.
But also, on the flip side, this is something that many of us know all to well.
The worst thing to happen to me following Mark’s death was to be told, in detail, what had happened to him. The whole sequence of events. Someone that I knew and greatly admired, whose thought I spent a lot of time thinking about, had done the unthinkable. This, in turn, made the unthinkable thinkable for me.
In trying to understand and comprehend what Mark had been thinking and going through, trying to put yourself in his shoes, as anyone would do naturally when trying to ascertain why someone has acted a certain way, I found myself succeeding all too easily.
I remember coming home after being told, in a really bad state, and I shared the story with my flatmate at the time, the details of which likewise broke her. I couldn’t believe what I’d done so carelessly and I knew then how harmful that kind of knowledge can be. I don’t think either of us were ever the same afterwards.
Not because what happened was more horrific than any other situation like it. It was just unbearable to hear these actions relayed as having been committed by someone we loved. It was all too real.
I’ve never quite shaken that. It made me think “Could I do that?” and over the years since, plagued by my usual bouts of depression, in my absolute worst moments this answer has come closer and closer to an affirmative one.
(I should stress at this point that, as I posted on Twitter last week, I’ve just doubled my dosage of anti-depressants and whilst I feel quite new and unfamiliar in myself right now, I can already tell I’m feeling lighter and happier; more sociable, less impulsive. I’m doing well. But, at the same time, I don’t want to take for granted the dark places to which I’ve so recently been. No one should. It’s all too easy to believe your own hype — “I’m better now!” — and then be complacent as a slide back into the darkness is taken to be a normal and deserved transition. I do this almost every time before it’s almost too late.)
This is the difficulty of talking about mental health crises and in doing a day like today justice. Widespread suicide prevention measures are more necessary than ever — we are in the midst of a horribly serious crisis — but the paradoxes of depression and suicide become ever more complex as a result.
How can we have frank and empathetic discussions about the unthinkable without making it thinkable? How can you be clear and detailed in describing how we feel and what we have done, rightly or wrongly, to remedy those feelings?
Two of the most high-profile recent suicides are those of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. The bands’ frontmen were close, often performing together. Cornell committed suicide at the age of 52. Two months later, on what would have been his 53rd birthday, Bennington took his life in the same manner.
I’ve unfortunately read a whole host of conspiracy theories online about these events, in trying to get my facts straight. It seems obvious that there is little to ponder. Suicide is infectious. Making the unthinkable thinkable for those that are left behind can be so deeply traumatic in ways that we generally do not discuss, precisely because of this infectious nature which we do not talk about for fear of itself.
It is the side-effect-that-must-not-be-named…
…I have no overarching point to this post. I have no answers. On a day like today, this is now all that I can think about and I think about all of this far more often than I let on. I’m really terrible at talking about it face-to-face and it’s something I usually clam up about, not knowing what to say or how to say it, always arrested by a fear of this danger, for myself and others, not wanting to leave any traces in the minds of those who have been affected.
It’s the wrong approach. It’s a downright bad approach.
To say that suicide is infectious is not to be taken literally and the worst thing we can do is quarantine it and stay silent, but talking about it is something which needs to be done with real care and attention, far more than we currently give it and in a way that is far more rigorous than what we currently see as the “standard”.
If you’re reading this and wanting answers, don’t feel disheartened and please don’t anyone feel alone. I know that, personally, I’m awful at reaching out, whether for myself or to check on others. Really awful at it. But I know there are some people out there who are going through similar things or that really do care about other’s well being. This is an official declaration to say “My DMs are always open” to anyone who wants to chat, share treatment tips, do some reality testing, or whatever.
Not to put a spotlight on the guy, but Meta-Nomad has been a hero in this way to me, sliding into my DMs on a few occasions over the last few months. Even if I’ve just worded something poorly in a tweet and inadvertently implied a subtext that was not intended, he’s there to say, “Hey, everything alright?”
Coming from someone I barely know, in a blogosphere defined by varying degrees of anonymity, it’s something I massively respect and I try to remember to channel his awareness when on the timeline these days.
Likewise, shout out to Bethan who also reached out the other day to offer meds advice. It means a lot.
Not all cries for help are loud and not all check-ins need be either. And these things should just be the start.
P.S. I’d like to share this old post again, because it’s forever important to me: The #MedsWorkedForMe (But Nothing Else Did)
P.P.S. Already, in quick hindsight, I feel like I wasn’t as attentive to these issues as I could have been in the second episode of Xenogothic Radio. It feels like terrible timing to have uploaded that episode on a day like today. The format might be restrictive of going into real depth and I want to stress how I do not take any of these issues lightly but want to explore how music, even music that expresses or even glorifies suicidal thoughts, can be cathartic and therapeutic.
When I was at school and had had my first really serious mental health episode, I started to see a school counsellor once a week for almost two years. I liked her little office being what we’d now call a “safe space”. I could talk about what I want and she had a CD player in there where I could play CDs whilst we talked. I really liked that.
I remember I took in Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead — stuff I thought we both might like. Then I didn’t see her for a year. When I had another episode, I went back but there was a new counsellor now. She dug out my old file and said that, in the notes her predecessor had made, she blamed my depression almost entirely on the sort of music I was listening to. I am still filled with absolute rage whenever I think about this.
All music can be gothic, yes. But also it is my belief that all music can be a tonic. Maybe I’ll write an episode on this explicitly in the future.
I’m convinced there is a moral component to the paucity of action on suicide. It amounts to a sense that suicide is an accusation against the world. It is as if the idea were that suicide is the ultimate rejection of this world and therefore this world cannot afford to acknowledge it under the fear of acknowledging its degree of delusional and disintegration. I don’t know how useful an observation that is but its the one that has impressed itself on me in the years that I’ve been working with suicidal people.