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Suicide is the new leprosy


Nothing Prepared Me For ThisRecently there have been many encouraging responses to suicide. The recent death of Don Ritchie, the 'angel' of The Gap suicide spot in Sydney, reminded us of his faithfulness in talking so many people out of taking their lives. He simply invited them to a chat and a cup of tea.

Two  recent films have treated the topic of depression and the spectre of suicide thoughtfully. And Nothing Prepared Me For This, a moving collection of writing by relatives and friends of people who had taken their own lives, has also been published.

A common public response to suicide is very similar to earlier attitudes to leprosy. The former makes silent people who need to speak. The latter makes invisible people who need to be seen.

I once visited a leper colony in Northern Thailand. Lepers and their families, traditionally excluded from villages, were here confined in a separate section of the camp for Hmong refugees. Many bore the deformities caused by injury and infection. The sisters who supported adult education in the camp had placed their computers and sewing machines in the lepers' section in order to encourage the other refugees to enter it.

In this place visibility dispelled fears and made for shared laughter.

In Western societies suicide has the same aura that leprosy once had. It also evokes the same fear, which in turn leads to exclusion and to silence. It is seen as the inexplicable rejection of the most fundamental human desire to live. This is the foundation stone of all attempts to find meaning and to shape a human society.

Perhaps this explains why in some cultures, which allowed human life to be taken with cavalier freedom judicially and militarily, the bodies of those who have taken their own lives were treated ignominiously. They were buried outside the common graveyards, and even subjected to ritual execution. It marks a fear that suicide may be contagious and corrode the fabric of society.

The families and friends of those who have taken their own lives suffer doubly from this exclusion. It is hard not to feel at times that people who have taken their own lives have rejected our love, and have chosen to exclude us from their lives. Because suicide is so inexplicable, relatives and friends also commonly feel excluded from conversation. They feel unable to speak about what matters to them.

In that respect they are like soldiers returning from war. A Vietnam war journalist described a sergeant's response to an importunate request to describe his experience. He told a hermetic story: 'Five men were sent on a mission behind enemy lines. Four never returned. The one who came back was badly wounded. He died before he could tell what happened.' The story was designed to exclude the hearer.

Those who know are condemned to silence. It is a dark silence, often with terrible effects on the soldiers themselves and on their families. The inexplicability and common fear of suicide make it difficult for friends and relatives to speak of it. They need a safe place, receptive listeners and encouragement to speak simple and honest words. Simple words come out of a luminous silence that recognises the mystery of each human being.

That is why Don Ritchie's simple offer of tea and conversation was significant beyond its important. So is the work of Support after Suicide which produced the collection of writing. It allows people to speak directly of the horror and denial of discovering that someone loved has taken their own life, the endless self-questioning about the kind word not said, the love, and the gradual moves towards acceptance and hope.

The contributors find simple words. A stanza of the title poem of 'Nothing prepared me for this' is exemplary.

and I never thought I'd feel like this
never knew how much I'd miss your kiss
it's true that ignorance is bliss
nothing prepared me for this.

The words are conventional. They belong to everyday conversation and not to sociological analysis or to horror movies.  But they make palpable the hole left in the life of the person who is left alone. They also leave space for us to see the ordinary but unique humanity of the person who has died.

Speaking and seeing, not imposed invisibility and silence, are the gateways to life after suicide.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, suicide



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Existing comments

"Because suicide is so inexplicable..." I disagree. It is explicable ... by those who are suicidal - however it takes patience & a capacity to truly listen to understand the explanation. I have been suicidal many times in the last dozen years & I have no trouble articulating why - in essence the intra-psychic pain becomes unbearable.

Helen | 17 May 2012  

In the first half of my teaching career I had no students who took their own lives. In the second half,the last quarter of a century, I have been to a dozen funerals of past or present boys who suicided,all from Catholic schools. These are the facts. I am still trying to work out why.

grebo | 17 May 2012  

It's a very apt comparison Andrew. Tragically the real lepers are those of us thinking of suicide. Confronted all too often by revulsion, blank incomprehension or simple disbelief we are driven further outside the walls of the town and deeper into the perception that we do not not belong here at all.We truly know how lepers felt. I had not heard of Don Ritchie before but I think his gift was even simpler than he realised.He knew these were lives worth saving.

Margaret | 17 May 2012  

Grebo one answer may be that the town is more beautiful and they more keenly feel the pain of being outside it. Certainly so for my then 15 year old son who twice (thank God for two Don Richie style angels on a school veranda) came within seconds of being one of the funerals.And for his fellow student said to have hanged himself with his school tie.

Margaret | 17 May 2012  

If our situation is in any way typical, parents of young adults with MH issues are totally excluded from any MH plan, because of privacy issues. We see things getting worse by the day. Millions have been and are being spent yet again on youth suicide prevention programs but those closest to young people seem to have no options but to watch and pray.

Mark | 17 May 2012  

I found Andrew Hamilton's article interesting, but I suspect there are more facets or angles to suicide that he can mention here. I have suffered from severe depression on and off for fifty years, and have often wanted to commit suicide. In 1968 my maternal grandmother, probably a poorly-diagnosed chronic depressive, committed suicide despite my efforts to help her. (I ran out of time.) No one else heeded my warnings that I thought she was a suicide risk. I was saddened by her death, but not suprised. I do not find suicide "inexplicable". It is sometimes justified, but in young people especially it is usually a premature waste of a life. And in very dysfunctional families, and some authoritarian cultures, people can be cynically driven to suicide.

Nigel S. | 17 May 2012  

I read this article at the beginning of the day and am glad the issue is being talked about. There needs to be less blaming and more talking. Getting issues out in the open is far more healthy. There is no agency, church, government, school or authority who has got all the answers - it is a collective thing to shoulder and recognise. is mental illness the leper of our age or just chronically misunderstood?

Jenny Esots | 17 May 2012  

Beautifully written. Beautiful connections made. Thank you.

Karen Adler | 18 May 2012  

Less blaming and more talking? After the tragedy of someone taking their own life, there is really nothing left except to find blame. It is obvious that someone/society/individuals has failed the victims in one way or another. There are no right answers or solutions but anguish and isolation suffered by many who suicide is a result of the superficiality of life and our fear to allow people to delve into and share their dark side. Ironically this dark side is often link to something which is life-giving - our sexuality, and the church has to take some responsibility for the fact that the suicide rate among gay people is much higher than average. The church has nothing of substance to say about this and continues to be complicit in many deaths.

AURELIUS | 18 May 2012  

Heartfelt thanks, Andrew Hamilton.

Mairead Deegan | 18 May 2012  

Thanks Andrew, and well said. Some of your readers may also be interested in a "survivor" of familial suicide who has used her photography to "speak" of her experience and that of others. http://kerrypayne.net/

Frank Quinlan MHCA | 18 May 2012  

Heartfelt Thank You

Mairead Deegan | 18 May 2012  

The late Don Ritchie deserved the George Cross. I've often felt its recipients were braver than VC winners. Not killing nor maiming: saving life. If he were Catholic I would suggest the sainthood recognition process be started. An ordinary man. Just an ordinary Australian. No "special skills" nor "training": just a good heart and life experience. Saint Damien of Molokai was also a very ordinary man. On the surface. Friends just back from Hawaii tell me he is very, very big there. The official state saint if I understood correctly. We need a 21st Century saint to reach out to the mentally ill and the temporarily disturbed who attempt to take their own lives. Suicide is a horrific "normal" part of everyday life. I have concerns the voluntary suicide movement does not help. Makes it acceptable. Bad. The reasons for suicide or would be suicide are often utter despair when the person feels utterly alone. Don Ritchie learnt his skills in his day job as a salesman. These skills are simple and effective. Sometimes we make things too complicated with our panels, experts etc. Thank you, Andrew.

Edward F | 19 May 2012  

Thanks for a thought provoking article Andrew, written as a poet would write.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 22 May 2012  

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