I discovered the other day that someone I have known for many years committed suicide. This is the second time I have experienced someone connected to me taking their own life; a friend of mine also committed suicide when he and I were both in our late teens. Knowing one person who took their own life is relatively common – the statistics show that around 1 in every 6200 people worldwide commits suicide. But knowing two is certainly getting to be unusual.
This has, not surprisingly, had a significant impact on me. Clearly, it has made me extremely sad and made me wonder why. They have also made me think back to a time when taking my own life was a distinct possibility and consider both what it was that stopped me from taking the final step and what it might have taken to actually make me take that final step.
The thing that ultimately kept me alive was, simply, the desire to be alive. Even in the depths, there was never a compelling reason to not be alive. Even if it felt that getting through a single day was phenomenally challenging, I always felt that ending my life would be more horrific.
I’m not sure, now, what would have persuaded me that no life was better than some life. My suspicion is that if I were alone – certainly if I didn’t have my own family – then I may well have come a great deal closer. I am fairly sure that one of the reasons my childhood friend took his own life was because he felt alone and under severe pressure.
We can never know for sure in the case of those who took their lives, because they are no longer around to talk to. Whatever information they might have left immediately beforehand is difficult to take at face value because they were – I assume – not in a mental state to articulate their feelings clearly. Certainly I found it extremely difficult to be articulate when I was in my darkest mental state; and I had any number of advantages both in terms of love and support and in general skill at communication.
The one thing that I have kept coming back to over the past few days is that we still do not talk enough about our mental health. Despite the fact that charities and some individuals have made great strides over the past decade or so, mental health is still a taboo subject.
I feel diffident about exploring my own experiences here because I am concerned about the impact it might have on my work. This despite the fact that we have had training sessions on mental health in which it has been made explicit that we should feel able to be honest and open about the way we feel.
We continue to have a serious cultural obstacle regarding our mental health which is, essentially, that our mental state is viewed as being permanent and if you become depressed, you are somehow irreparably broken.
In fact, research increasingly points to the brain being extremely malleable and capable of sometimes staggering changes and adaptations. The more startling examples, people suddenly acquiring new skills following a brain damage, for example, are well known. One was reported relatively recently in The Independent.
Specifically in relation to depression, recent research has shown that the area of the brain particularly associated with depression (the hippocampus) can grow more neurons and increase in volume. Whether a smaller hippocampus is the cause or effect of depression is another question but there are clear connections between the two.
So, what is transparently clear is that mental health, just like physical health, is malleable. It can be improved and it can be aggravated. Most importantly, mental health issues can be solved, not just softened; and, indeed, mental health issues can be prevented.
What is also clear is that we are all on a continuum of mental health. Some days are better than others; some events will unquestionably alter it; aspects of our lifestyle can be altered to significantly improve it.
Just as with physical health, our minds can be trained, enhanced, and protected. But the only way we will understand more how to do this is through dialogue. We must be open about discussions relating to mental health. The culture won’t change overnight, but it will change gradually if we show the willingness to change it.