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How we can all try to slow down New Zealand's rising suicide rate

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Aaron Hendry shares a personal essay about how he recovered from depression and suicidal thinking, and what we can do to help people who are struggling.

Suicide.

It’s a simple word – but a deadly one.

A word filled with heartache and shame, that holds the shards of a million shattered dreams and one we hear about too often these days.

With the rate of reported suicides on the rise, it can sometimes feel like it’s an epidemic that just can’t be stopped.

But, surely that’s not true? Surely, we can do something about this.

When I was a kid, I struggled with depression. I didn’t know what it was back then, I didn’t have any language to explain what I was going through, I was trapped. Trapped by darkness, by self-loathing, by a demon I could not name.

It got worse in my teens; I began wrestling with thoughts of suicide almost every day, never quite having the “courage” to follow through. I look back sometimes and wonder how exactly I made it, but I did.

And reflecting on this I can see the threads that pulled me through. You see no matter how isolated or alone I felt, I always had community and people in my life who cared about me, who loved me.

A mother who never stopped believing in me, a mentor who took me under her wing and gave me purpose, a friend who decided we should be mates and didn’t stop until he made it happen, a girlfriend who gave me the courage to face myself and stuck by me each step of the way.

We always tell people to reach out, to ask for help, but for someone struggling with depression, that’s not always the best advice. The problem with depression is that it robs you of the ability to ask for help. It isolates you, cuts you off.

It’s more than just feeling down or being in a bad mood. Depression can be crippling. Everyone experiences it differently. For me, it can be like a heavy weight is sitting on my shoulders. In those times it takes all my energy just to stop it crushing me. At other times, it’s like it turns my brain to mud, making it hard to think or concentrate, or it’s like my brain is full of fog. When all your energy is going into just trying to function, reaching out for help can sometimes be just a step too far.

We live in a world which has sold us the lie that the solution to our society’s problems lies solely with individuals. It’s a message which has done significant harm to those suffering with mental illness. Because what we end up doing is putting all the pressure on the individual to heal themselves. We’ve told them that they need to reach out for help, that they need to go get counselling, and that they should get medication. And when they fail to access the help on offer, we write them off, telling ourselves they’re not serious about getting help.

But, by placing all that responsibility on the individual, we have failed, not only to recognize the real problem behind the problem, but also how we can be part of the solution.

When I was in the darkest depths of my own battle with depression, I couldn’t reach out, no matter how much I wanted to. I was drowning.

I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have the courage to reach out and grab the line. Until someone saw me, struggling just beneath the waves, who reached out to me to pull me up.

That someone was my wife. She saw what I was going through, she sat with me, stayed with me, and it was her love that gave me the courage to face myself. She was the first person I spoke to about what I was going through.

And it was her who gave me the courage to talk to someone about it, and eventually go to my GP to get further support.

She wasn’t a trained counsellor, she didn’t have a degree in psychology, she just cared.

What she did for me, is something we can all do for each other. Take note when someone is struggling, reach out, sit with them, listen to their pain, and no matter what, don’t give up on them. Offer to call a GP and book an appointment for them. Cook them dinner. Share stories online about people who’ve come out the other side.

Related articles: 'The toughen-up culture is costing a lot of lives' | Jesse Bering on why suicide is a distinctly human behaviour | Reporter Katie Bradford on coping with her brother's death

Sometimes, when we look at the statistics and read the headlines, we can feel inadequate. Like the world’s problems are just too big for us to fix.

But, here’s the thing: you don’t have to fix them all. You just have to love those you’re with, be there for those within your reach.

If you have people in your life you think are struggling, reach out to them, offer to buy them coffee, hang out with them, watch a movie, or just chat. Even if they say no at first, don’t give up on them.

It may seem too simple, but the power of your presence can’t be underestimated.

The solution to the high rates of depression and suicide in our country is not simply more government funding so that individuals can get mental health care (although that is important) – the solution is strong, vibrant communities. Communities where people look out for one another, where individuals feel a sense of belonging and connection within the collective, communities which care.

Recently, I’ve been running workshops aimed at equipping communities to support one another in order to prevent suicide. One of the things we talk about a lot is the power of genuine community to prevent suicide – the power of the collective.

I truly believe that one of the key factors behind the rise of mental illness in the West, is the disintegration of our communities. In other words, the health of our community, reflects the health of the individuals within it.

Together we can affect change. But, we may need to restructure our lives to do it.

Genuine community means actually getting involved in each other’s lives beyond the surface stuff. It means being vulnerable and being real. It means caring about those in your space and reaching out when you see someone who needs a hand – you might feel uncomfortable and awkward doing this but you could save someone’s life.

The Government can pour billions upon billions of dollars into our mental health system, but until we discover what it means to be a community, it will do little to no good.

No, if we really want to affect change than it is up to all of us. To cease simply being a me, and become a we.

Because, we can turn back the tide of suicides in this nation.

And we can address the epidemic of depression and mental illness within our communities.

But, only if we do it together.

#MHAWNZ

Aaron Hendry blogs at When Lambs Are Silent, and is Team Leader at Lifewise Youth Housing. 

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