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Why we should stop describing suicide as 'sudden'


Enough with describing someone's death by suicide as "sudden", writes an anonymous sufferer of depression. It's a cancer of the mind and it's time we found a way to fix it, rather than talking in code.

When the media reported the recent passing of Greg Boyed it was with the universal statement that he died suddenly after battling depression. It was the same with celebrities Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain – they “died suddenly” after struggling with depression. But while the depression was acknowledged, it’s easy to discount that and concentrate only on the suddenness of the death.

I don't believe this is how we should be describing depression or suicide. It's unlikely these people “died suddenly”. Although some people — especially young men — sometimes act impulsively, for most suicidal people it isn’t a case of waking up with depression one morning and deciding to top yourself. Many will have been struggling with suicide and depression for a long time before it happens. Decades of walking around with a smile and going about their lives but with the constant thought running through their heads: “Today I might die. Is today the day?”
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No one who struggles with depression and suicidal ideation just happens to get it one day – it is the black dog that haunts their every waking moment for decades, for as long as they live.

You can see me at the mall – I’m always well dressed and groomed. Showered, a few days of fashionable stubble on my face, sunglasses and walking with purpose and meaning. Like I belong, I’m a fit and healthy human just going about my day. A pretty girl smiles at me and I smile back, I enquire with the shop assistant how their day is going, I pick up bread, cheese, some ham and something for dinner. I walk with a saunter and a character. I am a whole person just going about my day. But no one would know – unless I told them seriously, that my sunglasses are on because I am crying. I’m dead inside. I’m doing these menial daily tasks because it is what you do as a human functioning as humans should function. I’m thinking today I am going to top myself. That’s it – I’m done. This is it, my man, you’re going out today. No one would know because it is something that has been on my mind, constantly, for 20 years.

We don’t discuss this in mental health – we talk about sudden shock, we talk about how they always seemed so happy and how that it has been a tragedy. We don’t ever actually talk about that grim reality that people who do this have probably been afflicted with for years. Not days, not months but years. Years and years of battling with depression and suicidal ideation.

I don't believe Robin Williams simply decided one day to kill himself. It would have been a mind worm in his head for years beforehand. It just doesn’t work out as a “sudden event”. It comes from years of self-loathing, hatred in the spirit, the constant waking each morning thinking, “Damn, I have to do this again. Will I make it through this day?”

These demons I deal with have been a feature of my reality for two decades now. Did Anthony Bourdain just wake up one day and decide to end it all? I would wager no. I haven't told people, until recently, that suicide has been a constant thought of mine for as long as I can remember. I have even made a few ham-fisted attempts as I am sure everyone who does eventually get themselves over the line to the Great Overseer has.

We need to start a better conversation around this. Enough with the stories using the codewords “sudden death”, followed by a short spiel about depression and a few phone numbers to call at the end of an article. Sudden death is a car accident. Sudden death is being mauled by a goddamned hippo on the Zambezi river. Suicide is not a sudden death. I don’t want to ever hear about the sudden death of someone – I want to hear about someone who struggled for years and got through it. 

I want people to be able to talk about early intervention options without the fear of being hospitalised against their will. I’ve been in meetings with my doctor and I’ve told him straight up, “I can’t tell you how I am really doing because you have the power to put me away against my will”. And the bastard agreed with me and said he wasn’t surprised by my response and that it was a “difficult issue”. It shouldn’t be that way.

I should be able to talk directly about how I feel and then have the options: “What would you like to do about this?”. I don’t want drugs – they've never bloody worked anyway. I want options, I want help, I want to be able to be honest about how I feel and what choices I have. I don’t want a short condescending spiel about my sudden death – I want the world to address these issues properly and in an adult fashion. We ain’t kids, man. We can deal with the realities of mental illness many people are facing.

And they are everywhere. They are me – handsome, good looking and witty but inside just wondering if I’ll get through the day. And. It. Never. Stops. Relationships ruined, physical health racked by the self-medication of booze or the needle.

Let's be grownups and look for real solutions and proper wraparound care. I have been in the system for maybe 15 years. I have been at my doctor’s office in tears with the walls bending around me, moving outwards and inwards with my rapid breathing – pleading to have someone to talk to. The answer has always been the same – everywhere I have lived and every doctor I have seen in Wellington, Auckland, Tauranga and Queenstown: “We’ll run the paperwork through the DHB and see what they say. By the way, here’s some Valium”.

And the paperwork disappears. Sometimes they’ll call me to do a phone consultation and I’ll talk about how I feel, what I know about myself and the disorders I face. In 15 years of being mangled through our mental health system the most common response is “This patient has too much insight into their condition – we are unable to help them.” As if I have been judged as “too smart to be helped”.

In the last year, I've been declined mental health help about six times. I even said to my doctor – “Do I have to actually try and kill myself to get helped here?” His answer was less than encouraging. Here is my GP telling me the only way I'm likely to be seen by a professional is if I actually try making that final call, ringing the bell for the Reaper directly to come whisper strange thoughts in my head and convince me this is the time he has come to collect his debts.

We have an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach to this and we all get sad and seem so shocked but I tell you who isn’t shocked – the GPs and doctors and psychologists that people like me are trying to see. They see our files and know our deeper thoughts so when a tragedy occurs it just becomes another failing of our failed mental health system. Hands are wrung and the world cries with “What could we have done?!” — but what we could have done is taken this issue seriously.

It’s a cancer of the mind and when someone presents with cancer of the gut, bowel or lung we don’t just run them through the system – we give them the required help. Well people are dying of this every day. Each year, around 1200 people die from bowel cancer; more than 600 die from breast cancer each year, and provisional figures show 668 people died from suicide in the year to June.

But we don’t discuss it as openly as we need to, we shovel it away as another tragic death and never address the actual issues at hand. It all becomes paperwork, busy work for some unnamed bureaucratic to shuffle through the numbers and give the grim result at the end of each year to Stats NZ.

It’s enough. We have to fix this now. No matter how many times Mike King appears on TV or John Kirwan makes an ad about depression, unless we have a system in place to actually help these people through their conditions it is just white noise and papering over the cracks.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.