Tuesday 22 January 2013

Taboo... Why Aren't We Talking About Suicide?

I’ve been thinking about suicide as a taboo subject recently and I’ve been inspired to write some of my thoughts down because, the more I think about it, the more I feel like I need to write it! And what better day to do so, than the day that it comes to light that the number of suicides rose sharply last year?

Ok, I admit, the game Taboo is fun, but now let's get serious...
Firstly, I feel like I should explain why I still think suicide is a taboo subject. Anybody who has been to the cinema/play/spoken word performance (only one occasion, more than one poem…) with me in the past year and a half or asked me about a book I am reading will be very aware of the fact that references to suicide are everywhere. What writer or artist could resist the drama of the decision to end your own life? And, as I am all too aware, the real-life ‘inspiration’ for such stories is far too common. So how can it be true that talking about suicide is still a taboo?

When you start looking a little deeper into real life, and not just art (I know, and I agree with, the argument that art allows expression of such feelings), you start to realise that suicidal thoughts are rarely explored in any real depth. I think this point was demonstrated to me a few weeks ago, as I watched another blogger who has seen a suicide in her family talk on a breakfast news show.

Anne lost her son to suicide around the same time we lost Nathan. I won’t tell her story for her, as you can read it all in her own words, but its safe to say, like my own family’s loss, the death came as a complete shock with seemingly little warning. And, like we have found, Anne was stunned at the statistics on suicide in young males, but also that she did not know the statistics until after the death of her son.

She told the news presenters how she had felt that she had been worried about the dangers posed to her son by drugs, dangerous driving and knife culture, but she had not realised at the time that, as a male under the age of 30, her son was more likely to die by suicide than by any other means.

The numbers speak for themselves...

Children are taught all the time in schools about the risks associated with drugs, about stranger danger, about gun and knife crime, even about sniffing glue. While PSE does have a focus on mental health and wellbeing, it rarely discusses the issue of suicide directly and how many parents can say they have had a serious talk with their own children, or siblings with their siblings, or even friends with their friends, about suicide? I’m pretty sure it’s not a topic that gets discussed with as much frankness and depth in many households as other ‘youth dangers’.  (Not that I am saying drugs etc always are, but I would hazard a guess that the topics are much more widely broached).

From what I can see, there is a combination of reasons for this. Firstly, what are you warning them of? There is one common, ultimate risk, associated with all the other youth ‘dangers’ – death. But, with suicide, death itself appears to be the object, not a ‘risk’ of the behaviour. How do you warn somebody not to do something when the very reason you do not want them to do it, is the thing that they would see as the ultimate reason for doing it.

Secondly, fear plays a part. Nobody wants to ‘put ideas’ into people’s heads if they think there is no need. Most parents/teachers/peers/siblings would like to think they could discuss suicidal thoughts and tendencies with their children/pupils/friends/siblings if the need arose, but why bring it up and risk suggesting it as a possible ‘solution’ to their problems if they may not have ever even thought about it? Suicide is such a complex issue for even an adult to get their head around, so at what age can you have a serious discussion with a child or young adult about what makes some people decide to end their own lives?

CALM Campaign

And what does make somebody decide to end their own life? This is the big question for anybody who has lost somebody they know to suicide. After Nathan’s death, one of the many emotions I felt was an overwhelming sense of ‘it’s not fair’. And not in a ‘life’s not fair, why has this happened?’ kind of way, more of the kind of foot-stamping, toddler-tantrum kind of way. I kept thinking it wasn’t fair why he felt it was ok for him to end his own life, when the rest of us have to keep on living. We all, all his friends, all his family, everybody he would have ever spoken to, have had rubbish times at some point. How come he was allowed to do this, when we weren’t? But of course this is not quite true. Anyone of us could have taken the same decision for ourselves. So why didn’t we, but he did?

At this point, it all gets linked to the kinds philosophical questions that have been posed since the start of mankind – what is the meaning of life and the purpose of living? What drives us to carry on, and not choose to die, when we are suffering? There are as many answers as there are people posing the questions.


When we look at the statistics, there is an obvious need for more discussion surrounding suicide. Many of these deaths appear to happen without warning to those surrounding them, and many young men who commit suicide have not spoken to a health worker about their suicidal thoughts before. Suicide is often linked to depression, and those who decide to do it are thought of as “mentally ill”. While this may often be the case, I do think this is sometimes used as a distancing technique and stops people from actually facing the fact that those around them could be capable and, indeed are statistically more likely to die from that then of drugs, violence, or a car accident. 

Of course, that is not to say that you should spend your time paranoid about those you love. And it is not to say that simply ‘talking it through’ is the answer to all problems. And I really would not like to go down the self-blame road in terms of 'if only we had talked about it more'. I’ve read enough books and attended enough of the support group sessions to know that for every person out there who thinks that if they just knew of their loved ones’ turmoil they could have talked to them and prevented their death, there’s somebody else out there who thinks that if they hadn’t pressured their loved one into ‘getting help’ then they might still be alive. For every person out there that wishes they had spoken more to their loved one about suicide before they took their own lives, there’s somebody else who wishes they had not mentioned it so often.

No matter what you do, you can’t control somebody’s decision to kill themself. Their decision is their decision. But if we all start talking more, then at least everybody will be more aware of the facts. And if you're more aware of the facts, you can take whatever course of action you feel is best at the time when it comes to looking out for your friends, siblings and children - safe in the knowledge that your choice is an informed one. You can choose to talk to others about the devastating consequences of suicide to those around you. You can discuss what drives you to live. You can tell people how you’ve dealt with things in the past. And you can show them the alternatives out there for them to try before they decide to take such a permanent solution to what, in many cases, could be a relatively temporary problem. 


  1. Well said Em, still such shocking statistics!
    Love Mum xxxx

    1. Thanks Mum, I know! And shocking how little awareness there is out there of the statistics too xxx

  2. Very thought provoking and well written Em. Love Bexxx

  3. Fantastic blog Emma - I will share, well done for putting all this together - I will share and it will have a big impact. Nathan is proud of his sister - we need to speak out and it is only the courage of the survivors speaking out that will invoke change

    1. Thanks Ann, and thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work with your great blog too x

  4. Excellent blog post- this piece would make an ideal starting point for a PHSE lesson, I hope lots of people get to read this & open their mind.

    1. Thank you very much for reading and for your kind comments.

      I don't know whether you are a teacher looking for PHSE lessons or not, but if you would like more ideas for this, it may be worth talking to If U Care Share Foundation (www.ifucareshare.co.uk) - they run workshops with teenagers on mental health and suicide prevention. Alternatively Papyrus (who Anne, who I mention in this blog, is a trustee for) offer information and leaflets to proffessionals who work with young people (as well as support for young people themselves). Their website can be found at www.papyrus-uk.org.