This piece was published on the AttitudeLive website as part of their Mental Health Awareness Week coverage…
In August, in the same week the Provisional Suicide statistics were announced by the Chief Coroner, (668 an increase of about 10% on the previous year) we also learnt of the tragic death of Greg Boyed.
The public outpouring of grief was profound, in part accentuated by the fact that Greg – as a much loved broadcaster – was known to many of us. Also, many working in the media were deeply upset, and used their various platforms to express their sadness, and confusion about his death.
If only we had as much compassion for the living as we do for the dead.
One of the conversations that unfolded after Boyed’s death, based on the public conversations of those close to him, is how can you help someone if they keep it hidden? How are you supposed to know someone needs help if they never tell you?
Of course, this is a terrible problem to contemplate. And we know that in a large number of deaths by suicide people don’t tell anyone, they don’t reach out. It is a story that is terrifying for families, and loved ones.
But it is also understandable. Part of depression, and other forms of mental distress is we hide our pain and suffering, and we blame ourselves for it.
We should be blaming everyone else.
Increasingly we are understanding, that despite many years of treating depression, anxiety and other forms of mental health problems as residing in the individual – their brain chemistry, their lack of resilience, their beliefs or their faulty thinking – that in fact society is making us sick, and some more than others.
We know that economic inequality impacts everyone, even those most well off, the impact of a competitive, capitalist society increases depression, anxiety and other so called “lifestyle” related health problems.
We know that ethnic minorities, our rainbow community and other marginalised groups suffer at higher levels than the rest of the population.
And even for those disorders commonly seen as the most “genetic” like schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder for instance, epi-genetics now tells us that adverse environmental impacts such as trauma, abuse, neglect and other childhood events are required for these genetic tendencies to be expressed.
Mental health and suicide are a shared problem: this for me is the core message of mental health awareness week. We shouldn’t be asking how do we treat our friend or loved one who is struggling, we should be striving to treat everyone in our lives with kindness and compassion – ourselves included.
If we don’t know who is struggling, if we know people are going to hide it, and if we know that words and attitudes hurt, then it isn’t up to the person quietly languishing under the weight of distress to reach out and change (even though it would be great if they did) it’s up to the rest of us to change our behavior and our attitudes.
Because those struggling most are just the canary in the coal mine, and while it may seem overwhelming to “change society” if we all strive to be kinder, be less judgmental, and make space for those we love in our lives, we can all change our little corner of society for the better.