Learning from suicide


grief, Flickr image by cewilIn December 1996 my sister Jacqui killed herself. She was 50. Three years later our first cousin Andrew did the same thing. He was 33.

We do not want to admit that suicide has always been part of the human condition, but the first known suicide document is an Egyptian New Kingdom papyrus entitled 'Dialogue of a World-Weary Man with his Ba-Soul'.

Philosophers have debated the matter interminably, with many considering the act to be a paradox, for it is life's central issue: Wittgenstein considered it to be the pivot on which every ethical system turns, while Camus wrote that suicide 'is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art'.

When it comes to the matter of prevention, silence is a major problem. So is the fact of the sufferer's isolation in another space, in a land that remains foreign to the unafflicted, for the would-be suicide inhabits an ever-darkling plain that is swept by armies the rest of us know nothing of, whose powers we can only guess at.

And then even the armies disappear, I imagine, leaving the rubble of war, no man's land, and eventually the eternity of desert. No sign of green, no oasis, no hope. Then may ensue the weightiest of silences, Camus' silence of the heart, which has somehow to be broken. But in that breaking, other people's silences, other people's hearts, are broken, too.


In 2006, 1799 Australians killed themselves, and for each of those deaths up to 50 people may have been affected. By contrast, road accidents claimed 1638 lives.

We hear a great deal about the alienating effects of city life, but approximately a thousand of the 2006 suicides took place in the bush, even while the nationwide incidence is decreasing. If you are a man aged between 18 and 44, if you live in a township with a population smaller than 4000, and if you are unemployed or an embattled farmer, you are in a high-risk category. Add the ready availability of firearms, and the potentiality for disaster is very great.

There are many more experts in the fields of depression and mental illness these days, and much more openness, but the stigma attached to these conditions still lingers. Country people, and men in particular, still cultivate the image of the strong, silent, coping male. Very often they self-medicate: dependence on alcohol has always been part of Australian bush life, with the choice, often enough, being between that of a slow death or a quick one.

If you are not an expert, how can you hope to prevent a suicide? Sad to say, many people, like me, become wise after the event. My sister had attempted to kill herself twice before, but so long previously that the family was lulled into a false sense of security; the same applied in the case of Andrew.

But no one is immune from this contagion; no matter when the attempts take place, the danger is always there. Another danger is the one the experts call impulsivity; yet another warning signal is that of extreme behaviour, especially in the areas of sex, substance abuse, reckless spending, and gambling.

Awareness is crucial, therefore. Any history of depression and/or mood disorder is always significant, as is the attrition of too many disappointments: in love, work, achievement and physical health.

Then there is the effect of so-called life events. Bereavement and the failure to cope with grief can be a trigger: Jacqui struggled for more than two years after our mother's death, but in the end could not cope without her mainstay. Grief over divorce or breakup can be another trigger: Andrew broke his heart over one lovely girl and killed himself when he had a row with another.

I should have worried when an emotionally fragile Jacqui started giving away possessions; a doctor told me later that euphoria is another sign of decisiveness, and Jacqui seemed unusually happy shortly before she died. She also fooled us all into thinking she was going away for Christmas; instead, she never left home.

Jacqui left no note, and for a long time I resented the plunge into endless silence and absence. I also blamed myself; still, perhaps regular phone calls and impromptu visits after work had postponed earlier disaster. But since this life-altering death, I have been very vigilant: those of us who live try to learn.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 29 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.


Topic tags: gillian bouras, Word Suicide Prevention Day, sister, cousin, depression



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Existing comments

A thoroughly moving article Gillian and brave too. My condolences to you on the loss of two close family members; and admiration for raising this issue that is so often the subject of silence or whispering and shame.
Rosemary Keenan | 10 September 2009

My deepest sympathy to Gillian on her dual loss. I admire her courage in speaking out on such a painful subject. Suicide causes emotional havoc for the living. I was recently at the funeral of a very bright, talented young man. Observing his parents and close friends was agonising.

Gillian's comment about the 'self-medication' with alcohol used by men in the country, and the choice between a slow death and a quick one, struck home. I lost my brother due to his choice of 'the slow death'.

With a similar condition (severe anxiety and depression) I survived because I was raised with the concept that females could admit illness or failure and could ask for help, and I moved to a city where help was available, acceptable and advertised.

There are some great rural counsellors out there (some of them McKillop nuns) but that is not enough.


What else can be done to nudge this very deep-seated culture of silence, denial and bravado towards more open, life-enriching (life-saving) attitudes?
Gabrielle Bridges | 11 September 2009

Thank you Gillian for this excellent and moving article. Suicide claims more lives every day in Australia than our combined road toll & homicides (and we know that a significant percent of road 'accidents' are in fact suicides). What can we do?.. Yesterday I attended a "LifeForce Suicide Prevention Workshop" in Sydney, conducted by Wesley LifeForce. These are offered free for interested members of the community and as professional development courses. I highly recommend this Workshop as a place to start raising awareness and building up skills in suicide prevention.
Kate Maclurcan | 16 September 2009

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