Cracking the stigma of suicide. World Mental Health Day, 10th October 2019

As World Mental Health Day approaches, I thought I would share a deeply, personal story. This year the focus is on suicide prevention. Current statistics estimate that someone loses their life to suicide every 40 seconds

As a family we have lived with the burden of suicide for nearly forty years. As I write this article I am acutely aware and sensitive to the emotions that will stir within my family, as they are at the centre of ‘cracking the stigma’ of suicide. I do not intend to apportion any blame but hope that this eases any suffering they may still have and that, through our story, we can ease the suffering of and reduce the stigma of suicide for others.

The legend

I have one very vague memory of my grandfather… I think, but he is very much alive in the stories my father told us over and over again. To my brothers and I he was a legend. My dad crafted this image with tales of life on our family farm, fishing, hunting, dogs, holidays in Mozambique, the Second World War. A man of strong principle and self-discipline and totally committed to his family. He had built our family home in Zimbabwe from nothing but bush. His blood, sweat and tears still hold together the houses, huge tobacco barns and numerous dams. He was what people refer to as a true Rhodesian. We were told he had died from a heart attack and that his faithful Rhodesian Ridgeback, Tracker, sat at his side until he was found.

The lie

My brother and I were only 11 and 12 respectively, when we were told that was all a lie. Our grandfather had, instead, ended his own life by shooting himself, some ten years earlier. The obvious question to us kids was, “Why?” But there was no answer. The guilt, shock, and embarrassment of his death was a real burden for my grandmother. She never spoke of it and neither did anyone else.

The secret

Our family had been determined to keep the truth of his death a secret. On reflection, this silence affected individual and family dynamics more than we cared to notice. It implied that suicide was something that we were not emotionally equipped to deal with.

The shame

The secret reinforced the feeling that his suicide was something that reflected badly on us. It was something to be ashamed of. It was something that needed to stay hidden for fear of alienation – be that socially or spiritually.

The guilt

The conversations my dad and I had about the death, always went back to my dad blaming himself for not noticing ‘the signs’. My grandmother was the same. She spent years searching for the reason. There was simply no obvious explanation. There was a feeling that somehow an explanation would make it easier. 

The pain

We were so consumed with our own pain. How his sudden, unexplained suicide had affected us all individually, that we forgot to do the most important thing – show compassion for each other. I remember how I felt about the pain changing over time. Through my teenage years, the most powerful emotions were anger and the sense of abandonment. Never did I talk of it, yet it affected my own mental health and behaviour profoundly. I have no doubt it had the same affect on others.

The truth

Only our grandfather knows ‘the truth’. For too long we were burdened by the stigma of his suicide. The real stigma was being unable to communicate openly and honestly about our own mental health.

The lesson

There is so much to take from this story. So much that we have learned individually and collectively. We now feel a freedom to talk about suicide and our own mental health and ideations. What we cracked was the silence. We recognise how his death makes us feel and are able to accept the discomfort for what it is. We no longer live under the unbearable burden of silence, secrecy, shame and guilt. We no longer feel a burden to hold a mask for the sake of appearance. We are all much more aware of the signs of depression and compassionate toward one another. We are better people for all these things.