Demystifying suicide

Suicide is truly an awful beast. It’s frightening and mysterious, looming out of the darkness to catch family, friends and colleagues off guard. There is a great deal of stigma attached to the word suicide, but it’s time we talked about it. By reaching out to each other, helping those struggling, and sharing our difficult stories, we can actually save lives.

After my brother died, people didn’t know what to say. They’d awkwardly hug me, tell me he was in a better place and that he wasn’t suffering any more. They’d skirt the issue of his death as if it was a huge, shameful secret. I don’t think they meant any harm by this. I think people are afraid of discussing suicide because they don’t understand it.

So, here are twelve myths about suicide that need to be blasted!

Myth One

One common myth claims that talking about suicide can plant the idea in someone’s head. Numerous studies have shown the opposite. There is a palpable sense of relief that accompanies expressing one’s feelings. The desire to blend in, to “toughen up” and get on with things prevents people from seeking the help they desperately need.
Talking about suicide and mental health struggles opens up communication about a topic that is often kept a secret. These secrets, exposed to the bright light of day, often lose their power. We need to demystify it, and make it so people feel free to express their suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts don’t make one selfish or weak.

They’re merely symptoms of an illness, and like a broken leg or breast cancer. There should be no stigma or shame in talking about suicide. Education, treatment and compassion are the keys to suicide prevention. About 90 per cent of people who die by suicide suffer from a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. It’s vital that we keep channels of communication open, and keep a close eye on loved ones who might be experiencing mental health issues.

Myth Two

Another common myth about suicide is that people who want to take their own lives will always find a way. This is not true. Many people are relieved to survive a suicide attempt. Suicide can be prevented. Most people who are suicidal do not want to die; they just want to stop their pain.

Myth Three

Unfortunately, we often hear people argue that those who talk about suicide are just trying to get attention. This is NOT true. People who die by suicide usually talk about it to someone before resorting to it. Suicidal people are in pain and are often desperately reaching out for help because they do not know what to do. They have lost hope. If they talk to you about suicide, always take it seriously – always.

Myth Four

Suicide always occurs without any warning signs. However, there are almost ALWAYS warning signs. For example, my brother had told me he wanted to die. He wanted the sadness and anxiety to stop. I only wish I’d paid more attention.

Myth Five

Suicide only affects people of a certain age, gender, race and financial status. NO. Suicide can affect anyone.

Myth Six

People who attempt suicide are “crazy”. Let me just reiterate something. Crazy is such a horrible, loaded word. It’s so problematic. It erodes at one’s humanity. It’s a garish label slapped on terrorists and television villains. In reality, people who attempt suicide are in a great deal of pain. They are not lesser, or “damaged”. Myth Seven

People who attempt suicide and make it through alive will not ever attempt suicide again. Actually, people (usually) don’t become “magically cured”. Often, someone who attempts suicide and survives will often try again. People need to be cared for after an attempt.

Myth Eight

People who resort to suicide are “weak”. This is probably one of the most toxic myths surrounding suicide. It is patently wrong. People who attempt suicide are in pain. They are suffering and probably have a chemical imbalance in their brain. Many people considered “strong” and “macho” by the world die by suicide.

Myth Nine

People who are suicidal definitely want to die. Actually, many people who are suicidal do not actually want to die. Rather, they are in pain and they want to stop the pain. When I was suicidal, I didn’t want to die. I was afraid of dying. I just wanted to stop crying, to stop feeling so empty and sad.

Myth Ten

Alcohol and drug abuse doesn’t contribute to suicidal impulses. Actually, people who die by suicide are often under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Myth Eleven

Young people never consider suicide because they are happy and have their whole life ahead of them. Actually, suicide is the third leading cause of death globally for young people aged 15-24. Even children die by suicide.

Myth Twelve

People who are suicidal do not seek help. However, many people who are suicidal reach out for help. Always take a cry for help seriously.

Written by Jean Balchin. Unversity of Otago student.

A letter to my brother

Sometimes, it’s easier to write my feelings down than to speak the words aloud. When I’m really struggling with my grief, I turn to my journal, and let the ink flow from my pen and the sadness flow from my heart. It’s cathartic in a way, to let it all out.

If there are things you are still struggling to reconcile about your loved one’s death, it might help to write them a letter. Here’s one I wrote one year after my brother’s death. On anniversaries and his birthdays, I write John letters, as if he is in a faraway country, and can still read them. It helps.

Dear John,

It has been 365 days since you died, 371 days since I last talked to you, 414 days since I last saw your cheeky smile and it feels like a lifetime. Words usually come easily to me, but I couldn’t speak at your funeral and I’ve struggled since to verbalise what you meant to me – what I wish I’d said to you before you went. My hands are shaking as I write this now, but it needs to be done.

John, you were my brother, my confidant, my best friend. We fought, squabbled and terrorised each other as children – remember the time I nearly dropped a rocking horse on you? But we also had the most brilliant of times – camping out in the tree house, cycling around the farm, taking on the rest of the ravening horde (our other siblings), and cooking up a storm with our cake competitions. You were my partner in crime and together we were unstoppable – the A team. I honestly can’t think of a bad thing to say about you, perhaps other than the fact that you loved to dob me in at the dinner table, slyly asking me (in front of our sharp-eared father) about my human evolution lessons in biology, or whether I had ever drunk before in my life. It was infuriating, but infuriatingly hilarious nonetheless.

The summer before we left for university remains the best time of my life. Cycling through the Karangahake Gorge in the brilliant sunshine, sneaking you the odd milkshake at work, diving into the Ohinemuri to cool off after a taxing day of rolling ice-creams and directing lost cyclists at the café – it was sun-speckled bliss. That was the summer you introduced me to The Office – we’d sit, crowded around our antique computer, almost crying with laughter at Michael’s hijinks.

And then you moved to Dunedin with me. Flatting with you was hilarious – although your cooking left a lot to be desired, I could always rely on you to have at least half a cake or a pack of doughnuts floating around. Even when you were beginning to slip away, you were still unfailingly kind and thoughtful. I’d phone you up at three in the morning, after a night out with my pals and rather tipsily ask you to come pick me up. Without complaining, you’d appear twenty minutes later, skateboard under your arm, and sleep in your eyes. You’d deposit me on your skateboard and tow me home – with a cheeky stop off at McDonalds on the way home for a McFlurry and a packet of fries.

You know what they all say – grief comes in waves, and I let it wash over me to the point where I’m struggling to breathe, suffocating in sadness. I’m terrified of losing more of you – of forgetting your slightly crooked front teeth, your wide flat fingernails, the curious way you’d lope around the house, grinning sideways at me as you’d impersonate John Cleese from The Ministry of Silly Walks. You taught me to be kind – to care for the outsider, to laugh often and without embarrassment, to find hilarity in the mundane, to poke fun at oneself with abandon. I’ve never really been certain of anything in my life – including what I believe of the hereafter. But if there is even the slightest chance that I can see you again, I’ll put aside all my cynicism, scepticism, and fear and hold onto that fragment of hope. I love you,

Jean

Let’s start the conversation now

Kia ora. My name is Jean and I’ve been involved with Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust for a couple of years. I’d like to begin this blog by telling you a story about me and my brother John, who died by suicide three years ago.

I’m the oldest of nine children – Jean, John, Andrew, Will, Jill, Lucy, Peter, Rebecca and Jack. Together with my parents, we have enough kids for a soccer team, almost enough for five-aside rugby, and more than enough for a nervous breakdown.

My childhood was messy, chaotic, and full of love. I had my usual teenage angst, and rebellious phase, but nothing serious had ever really happened. I hadn’t known real sadness, depression or anxiety. I hadn’t yet been touched by suicide.

Naturally, I was always very protective of my brothers and sisters. That’s not to say I didn’t tease them. On my little brother Will’s first day at school, I convinced him that a tube of wasabi I had was green ice-cream. He ate a whole teaspoon and began to bawl. I ran away. Obviously, this was not my finest hour. But when it really mattered, we stuck together. Playground skirmishes would sometimes escalate into full-on clan wars if someone dared to pick a fight with one of my siblings. And when my brother John began to show signs of depression, I was worried.

Three years ago, I was a second year student at Otago University. I was living in a flat in North East Valley, and I thought it would be great fun if my brother John – the next one closest in age – would come flat with me. So he moved down, and for awhile, it was great fun. We would go to parties together, and he would put me on his skateboard, and tow me home when I was tipsy and tired, and it was three o’clock in the morning. He did alright at his studies at first, but it soon became evident that university just wasn’t for him.

I’m not quite sure what happened to my brother, but a number of factors – university stress, poor sleep, anxiety, signs of developing schizophrenia, and of course being away from home – combined in him to produce severe depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. To cut a long story short, my lovely aunt and I did our best to help him. We took him to the doctors, counsellors and fed him well. He withdrew from university and headed home to work and rest for awhile. But at home, John didn’t get the rest, support and medical attention he needed. I don’t want to blame anyone for his death, and I won’t go into specifics, but his death was entirely preventable.

On the 24th of September 2014, John died by suicide. He was only 18. He was my best friend, a gentle boy who saw the best in everyone. John was the boy who befriended the outsiders. He was the class clown. He was the kindest human being I knew.

I felt like I had somehow let him down. I was in Edinburgh at the time, two weeks into a student exchange. I was on the other side of the world. I thought he was doing ok – just a week earlier, we’d been having a pretty normal conversation on Facebook. I’d ignored his most recent request to Skype.

For a long time, I refused to acknowledge the true circumstances of my brother’s death. I buried the memory in the attic of my mind and desperately tried to distract myself. And then, when I too began to spiral downwards into that deep, dark pit of depression, I kept my mouth shut. I was too afraid to tell anyone that my hair was falling out in clumps, that I woke up each morning with a heavy weight on my chest, pushing me down into the mattress.

I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t sleep, that I was beginning to hear voices, or that secretly I longed for everything to just stop. I was on the brink of suicide myself, and it wasn’t until a friend confronted me with five simple words, that I realised I needed help. “Are you thinking about suicide?” she asked. I got the help I needed, and while I’m not 100% better, I am doing well, and I have a wonderful support system.

Focus on the happy memories:

I can’t ever forget the sad resolution to John’s life. life, but I can dwell on those funny, happy memories. So, here are a few:

When I was eight years old, we lived on a farm in Mangatangi. We had the most infuriating, useless chickens ever. They hardly ever laid eggs for us, and they weren’t affectionate in the slightest. John’s rooster was downright evil, and would attack us every time we left the house. However, one afternoon Andrew and I went to inspect the egg-boxes, only to find that there were twelve spotless, perfectly oval, creamy eggs nestled carefully within the straw. I was amazed. Our chickens had finally rewarded us! Andrew and I trotted home, crowing excitedly to Mum and Dad. It was only a few years ago that I found out my wily parents had enlisted John to hide a carton of eggs in our henhouse, in order to surprise us for once. He never breathed a word.

Throughout high school, I was incredibly straight laced and reserved. My rebellion was more of an intellectual one, rather than the traditional sex, drugs and rock’n’roll defiance of usual teenagers. To this end, I arrived at the ripe old age of 18 without ever having been to a party. My dear friend Sequoia decided to fix this, and so one evening I snuck out to my first party. It was ineffably strange. Inebriated teenagers were stumbling around in a muddy field, a decrepit old donkey was wandering around foraging for party snacks, and a cluster of tangle-haired hippies were hotboxing a caravan. I stood there in bemusement, watching the chaos unfold. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my cheeky brother pull up on his bicycle. We made eye contact, and an unspoken agreement was made: I won’t tell if you don’t. We always looked out for each other. He was my best friend.

Finally, I was lucky enough to flat with John for a brief while down in Dunedin. It was the funniest, most infuriating time of my life. But John was always kind, sweet and gentle. Having moved on from the previously mentioned teetotal period, I would occasionally head out to town with my friends until the small hours of the morning. John would always leave his phone on in case I needed someone to walk me home. One night I called him at 3 in the morning. I was stuck in the centre of town, and didn’t want to walk through the dark, dank North East Valley by myself. Without complaining, my brother came to find me, skateboard under his arm. He placed me on the skateboard and towed me home, stopping off for refreshments on the way home. I will never forget how kind and caring John was, or how much fun it was to share a McFlurry with him, bumbling along the deserted roads of North Dunedin in the middle of the night.

So, to conclude:

It is the fear of losing more people to suicide that drives me forward. I am no longer ashamed of how my mind plays tricks on me, or the deficient levels of dopamine in my brain. Talking about suicide and mental health is a matter of life and death in New Zealand. Let’s start the conversation now.

I’d like to leave you with a Maori proverb that took on great significance to me after my brother died:

He aha te mea nu-nui o te ao

What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people

Mental Notes – Dunedin Fringe Review

On 16 March, I had the immense pleasure of watching the Suitcase Theatre perform Mental Notes as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

Rarely have I encountered such an uplifting and touching take on mental health. Mental Notes, is at its heart, an exploration of mental health, a sustained conversation with many different voices. Over the course of an hour, sitting in the dark of the ArtSenta building, I was reminded that I am not alone in my mental illness.

Mental Notes comprises a collection of stories from the Dunedin community, all anonymous, but real. In the wake of horrifying statistics and impersonal, vague reassurances from medical authorities, it’s refreshing to hear from real people. I won’t lie – it was challenging at times, but I was reassured by the knowledge that members from Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust were on hand for emotional support, should I need it. I also really appreciated the fact that the cast invited us to chat and drink tea with them afterwards.

The show began with an upbeat performance of the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, and a discussion of the fact that almost everyone we meet is hiding something: “Our facade is a carefully curated selection of traits.” We then dived into a discussion of trigger warnings, and the stigmas surrounding mental health. The conversation was by turns uplifting, and sobering, articulating a range of experiences and reminding the audience that mental illness impacts different people in different ways. For example, when the topic of labels was touched upon, one character argued that “You don’t have to be given a label to know who you are.” That indeed is one person’s truth, but we also heard from another character how they found a palpable sense of relief at being able to articulate just what was going on inside their head.

Throughout the performance, authentic and alarming statistics were interwoven with the spoken word, reminding the audience of the sheer number of people behind the voices. I was encouraged by the stories of coping mechanisms and hearty support systems. I especially appreciated the way I could relate to the places (such as St Clairs beach) mentioned in the performance. It added a degree of familiarity to the stories that made them even more real in my eyes.

Throughout the performance, each actor moved a suitcase around the simple stage space, constantly refiguring the area. This ever changing layout added dynamism to the performance, which was further explored in the scene about clinical trials of ketamine therapy. I really enjoyed the use of music and lights in this session, and the physical theatre was spellbinding, with actors writhing and manipulating the space in a vivid and eye-catching way.

I was also touched by the scene wherein a woman recounts the story of a toxic friendship, as she watches her close friend unravel and become psychotic. “The books say that you are not responsible for someone else’s happiness,” she says, but we all know that it’s hard to think about such matters in a purely logical and intellectual way. As someone who has struggled with being someone’s sole emotional support, I really related to this scene. 24/7 support of someone struggling with mental health is really exhausting. That’s why it’s important that we all have comprehensive support systems in place.

It was also fascinating learning about the history of “treatment” for mental health issues over the ages, from Martin Luther’s ignorant and worrisome perception of mental health, to the Dunedin Eugenics society in the early twentieth century. Think of lobotomies, electroshock therapy and the current furor over the issue of “overmedicating”, and you’ll realise that it’s a difficult road, getting help for mental health concerns.

Mental Notes ended with the song Forks and Spoons, a touching and funny ditty about life with an invisible illness.

Good morning universe, my eyes crack open slowly for the day
I am a spoonie, so I’m forced to live my life a certain way.
A spoonie is a person with an illness that you cannot see
And spoons are how we calculate our units of strength and energy
A spoonie wakes up with a single predetermined set of spoons
We can’t make more (like normies do) if we run out mid-afternoon.
Spoons deplete with struggles and activities, both work and fun
So spoonies try to keep some spoons aside to get the things that matter done
“Get up!” SPOON
“Make the bed!” SPOON!
“Quiet all the melancholy voices in my head!” SPOON!
“Reach up in the shower!” SPOON
“Reach down in the shower!” SPOON
“Leave the house” SPOON!
“Face the rain” SPOON!
“Go to work and don’t leave early again!” SPOON!
“Headache” SPOON!
“Making tea!” TEA SPOON!
“Sitting through an acquaintance telling you that all you need is yoga and a positive mindset!” SPOON!
“Digging that person’s shallow grave!” A SHOVEL!
When the final spoon is gone, we cannot move, or even talk
So if I save a spoon to give to you, I give a fork.
Mental Notes is a poignant and touching reminder of the folk behind the mental health statistics. I only wish it could be performed to wider audiences. It is a collection of tales that everyone needs to hear.

Written by Jean Balchin. Student at University of Otago.

A review of The Ripple Effect

On the 14 March I was fortunate enough to go to a screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect”, a feature length documentary film focusing on the devastating effects of suicide. I must admit, I wasn’t looking forward to the film. I expected to dissolve into tears, and to leave feeling dejected and miserable.

But Kevin Hines and his film crew actually reaffirmed a tremendously uplifting message, illustrating the positive ripple effects of advocacy, inspiration and hope that are helping millions heal & stay alive.
The film highlights the story of Kevin Hines, who at age 19, attempted to take his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Today Kevin is a world-renowned mental health advocate, motivational speaker and author who travels the globe spreading his message of hope, recovery and wellness.

I think the most important thing that I took from the film was the important of sharing our stories of survival and recovery in order to bring hope to others. (I’ve said this all before, but good luck shutting me up now.) I’ve struggled with severe depression and anxiety for about five years now. When I first began falling into that horrid hole of despair, I didn’t think I’d be able to find a way out. But, thanks mostly to the love and support of my friends and family, I’m still alive today. What’s more, I’m happy, confident, and prepared for the future.
Often when we talk about mental health, we focus on the really sad and despairing stories of those we’ve lost. And that’s ok. But it’s also important to remember hope, and to cling to a sense of optimism for the future. It really does get better. Tonight I’d like to congratulate all of you who have made it through so much shit to be here today. I am so proud of you.

And remember, if you ever find yourself struggling, please do reach out. Help can always be found.

Written by Jean Balchin – Student at University of Otago

Let’s start the conversation now

Jean Balchin

Kia ora. My name is Jean and I’ve been involved with Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust for a couple of years. I’d like to begin this blog by telling you a story about me and my brother John, who died by suicide three years ago.

I’m the oldest of nine children – Jean, John, Andrew, Will, Jill, Lucy, Peter, Rebecca and Jack. Together with my parents, we have enough kids for a soccer team, almost enough for five-aside rugby, and more than enough for a nervous breakdown.

My childhood was messy, chaotic, and full of love. I had my usual teenage angst, and rebellious phase, but nothing serious had ever really happened. I hadn’t known real sadness, depression or anxiety. I hadn’t yet been touched by suicide.

Naturally, I was always very protective of my brothers and sisters. That’s not to say I didn’t tease them. On my little brother Will’s first day at school, I convinced him that a tube of wasabi I had was green ice-cream. He ate a whole teaspoon and began to bawl. I ran away. Obviously, this was not my finest hour. But when it really mattered, we stuck together. Playground skirmishes would sometimes escalate into full-on clan wars if someone dared to pick a fight with one of my siblings. And when my brother John began to show signs of depression, I was worried.

Three years ago, I was a second year student at Otago University. I was living in a flat in North East Valley, and I thought it would be great fun if my brother John – the next one closest in age – would come flat with me. So he moved down, and for awhile, it was great fun. We would go to parties together, and he would put me on his skateboard, and tow me home when I was tipsy and tired, and it was three o’clock in the morning. He did alright at his studies at first, but it soon became evident that university just wasn’t for him.

I’m not quite sure what happened to my brother, but a number of factors – university stress, poor sleep, anxiety, signs of developing schizophrenia, and of course being away from home – combined in him to produce severe depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. To cut a long story short, my lovely aunt and I did our best to help him. We took him to the doctors, counsellors and fed him well. He withdrew from university and headed home to work and rest for awhile. But at home, John didn’t get the rest, support and medical attention he needed. I don’t want to blame anyone for his death, and I won’t go into specifics, but his death was entirely preventable.

On the 24th of September 2014, John died by suicide. He was only 18. He was my best friend, a gentle boy who saw the best in everyone. John was the boy who befriended the outsiders. He was the class clown. He was the kindest human being I knew.

I felt like I had somehow let him down. I was in Edinburgh at the time, two weeks into a student exchange. I was on the other side of the world. I thought he was doing ok – just a week earlier, we’d been having a pretty normal conversation on Facebook. I’d ignored his most recent request to Skype.

For a long time, I refused to acknowledge the true circumstances of my brother’s death. I buried the memory in the attic of my mind and desperately tried to distract myself. And then, when I too began to spiral downwards into that deep, dark pit of depression, I kept my mouth shut. I was too afraid to tell anyone that my hair was falling out in clumps, that I woke up each morning with a heavy weight on my chest, pushing me down into the mattress.

I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t sleep, that I was beginning to hear voices, or that secretly I longed for everything to just stop. I was on the brink of suicide myself, and it wasn’t until a friend confronted me with five simple words, that I realised I needed help. “Are you thinking about suicide?” she asked. I got the help I needed, and while I’m not 100% better, I am doing well, and I have a wonderful support system.

Focus on the happy memories:

I can’t ever forget the sad resolution to John’s life.  life, but I can dwell on those funny, happy memories. So, here are a few:

When I was eight years old, we lived on a farm in Mangatangi. We had the most infuriating, useless chickens ever. They hardly ever laid eggs for us, and they weren’t affectionate in the slightest. John’s rooster was downright evil, and would attack us every time we left the house. However, one afternoon Andrew and I went to inspect the egg-boxes, only to find that there were twelve spotless, perfectly oval, creamy eggs nestled carefully within the straw. I was amazed. Our chickens had finally rewarded us! Andrew and I trotted home, crowing excitedly to Mum and Dad. It was only a few years ago that I found out my wily parents had enlisted John to hide a carton of eggs in our henhouse, in order to surprise us for once. He never breathed a word.

Throughout high school, I was incredibly straight laced and reserved. My rebellion was more of an intellectual one, rather than the traditional sex, drugs and rock’n’roll defiance of usual teenagers. To this end, I arrived at the ripe old age of 18 without ever having been to a party. My dear friend Sequoia decided to fix this, and so one evening I snuck out to my first party. It was ineffably strange. Inebriated teenagers were stumbling around in a muddy field, a decrepit old donkey was wandering around foraging for party snacks, and a cluster of tangle-haired hippies were hotboxing a caravan. I stood there in bemusement, watching the chaos unfold. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my cheeky brother pull up on his bicycle. We made eye contact, and an unspoken agreement was made: I won’t tell if you don’t. We always looked out for each other. He was my best friend.

Finally, I was lucky enough to flat with John for a brief while down in Dunedin. It was the funniest, most infuriating time of my life. But John was always kind, sweet and gentle. Having moved on from the previously mentioned teetotal period, I would occasionally head out to town with my friends until the small hours of the morning. John would always leave his phone on in case I needed someone to walk me home. One night I called him at 3 in the morning. I was stuck in the centre of town, and didn’t want to walk through the dark, dank North East Valley by myself. Without complaining, my brother came to find me, skateboard under his arm. He placed me on the skateboard and towed me home, stopping off for refreshments on the way home. I will never forget how kind and caring John was, or how much fun it was to share a McFlurry with him, bumbling along the deserted roads of North Dunedin in the middle of the night.

So, to conclude:

It is the fear of losing more people to suicide that drives me forward. I am no longer ashamed of how my mind plays tricks on me, or the deficient levels of dopamine in my brain. Talking about suicide and mental health is a matter of life and death in New Zealand. Let’s start the conversation now.

I’d like to leave you with a Maori proverb that took on great significance to me after my brother died:

He aha te mea nu-nui o te ao

What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people