At the age of 49, I’ve come to the conclusion the most dangerous words begin with the letter ‘s’. I’m thinking of words such as shame, stigma and suicide. Words that come loaded with some seriously heavy-duty emotional baggage.
These are words I’ve given a lot of thought to. Back in 2011, I tried to take my own life. I had a good job in the NHS, three great children, a loving family and friends but I still found myself in a place where a combination of factors, both work and personal life, left me feeling the only answer to my problems was to end it all.
I had a plan. I don’t think colleagues or family had any idea. I certainly didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t go and see my doctor. I didn’t say anything to anyone at work and didn’t talk to friends. I had made up my mind. I felt like a complete failure, I felt intense shame at not being able to ‘fix’ my problems.
Thankfully, I wasn’t successful. Only at that point did I realise I needed help. I rang the occupational health team at work and they quickly arranged for me to speak to a counsellor by phone. I went on to have a series of telephone counselling sessions. I told my friends and family and my intense sense of shame evaporated. No one was judging me.
One of the things I have since discovered about suicide is that it’s temporal. Typically, it’s a particular set of problems at a particular time in someone’s life that causes it. It’s not an enduring state. As a result of opening up and asking for help, I changed my life for the better and haven’t felt suicidal since.
Men, in particular, are really bad at talking about how they feel or asking for help. But it’s healthy to talk about how we feel and it can be a real lifesaver. In this country men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide and, personally, I think men need to be more open and not bottle up problems.
There is good news too. Nationally, the suicide rate for men is at its lowest for 30 years (15.5 death per 100,000 people). Having studied at university is also a protective factor against suicide with a rate of 4.7 per 100,000 compared to 10.1 per 100,000 in the population as a whole.
As a society, if we can have open and honest conversations about suicide we can all help prevent needless deaths.
If you need help, contact Student Support on 2761, your GP or the Samaritans on 116 123.
Andrew Stronach is Head of Corporate Communications at the University of East Anglia.