Suicide is a topic that is taboo and not spoken about in most families and communities. There is a fear that by speaking about it we are inviting it into our lives. However, suicide is very prominent in the average South African’s life. In South Africa there are about 22 completed suicides every day, this means almost every hour of every day a South African completes a suicide. For every completed suicide there are approximately 20 reported attempts. These are very scary statistics and they tell us that suicide
is something that we should talk about.
There is a stigma towards mental health and suicide in South Africa; this lessens the chance that someone who is thinking about suicide will reach out for help. Many people feel ashamed, weak and that they are letting the people around them down if they have suicidal thoughts. These feelings should not be true – having depression and suicidal thoughts does not mean a person has a weak character or that they should be ashamed of how they are feeling. When a person reaches this point they usually have very little control over how they feel. We often say that we can’t help falling in love; the same is true with depression – we can’t help it and it is not our fault. The stigma exists because many of us do not realise how it feels to be in a place where suicide becomes an option.
“Imagine the deepest darkest black hole; there are no handholds to help you climb out. The hole is so deep that you cannot see the light or any positive thing. The blackness is so thick that you feel like you cannot breathe. You feel as if there is no hope and that things will never get better. You feel completely alone and desperate. Whatever energy or light or enjoyment you had in you has gone and it feels like you have lost yourself.” This depleting and devastating description was written by someone who suffers from major depression. Some people feel that their only way out of the black hole is taking their life.
The common perception is that if someone thinks about or completes a suicide, they want to die. This is not quite correct. A person contemplating it doesn’t want to die, rather they don’t feel that they can live in this way any longer; they want to end their pain. There is a big difference.
If we start to take this new perception about what suicide actually is then we have empathy for those of us who feel as if they are in the black hole. We can further create empathy and a shift in perception by changing the terminology we use when we speak about suicide. It is common for us to refer to someone ‘committing suicide’. This gives a connotation of criminality, that the person has murdered themselves. This perception leads to blaming the person and makes it much harder for their family to cope with what
has happened. If we change this terminology to ‘completed suicide’ we remove the negative and blaming connotations. Without these connotations we are more inclined to think about what that person was feeling and how they must have been suffering and feel empathy towards them and anyone thinking about suicide.
If we can build communities that are compassionate and empathetic we will create healthy and supportive communities. These communities will be more inclined to reach out to those who need help and be aware of behaviour that may suggest suicide. This will lessen the stigma in South Africa and may even decrease the number of attempted and completed suicides.
‘Suicide – Let’s Talk About It Part 2’ will discuss phrases and behaviours that may suggest someone is thinking about suicide and what we can do as their community.
By Amy Pieterse