Tony Bates: We have the power to help those in a dark place

Suicide’s ripple effect touches us all, but a kind word can aid someone in need

The strength of the human spirit is phenomenal – on a good day. On a bad day, the human spirit can be vulnerable. And when we’re vulnerable, we are profoundly shaped by what happens around us.

A kind word can be a powerful gift. It can pull us back from the edge. A harsh word is cutting.

When we’re feeling shaky, the smallest action – someone walking away from us, a door banging behind them – can feel like rejection and abandonment. And we slip a little further into the darkness.

The difficult moments we face in our lives are a part of all our lives. Thinking the pain we feel is unique to us isolates us and pushes us closer to the edge of despair.

This is a very lonely place, where we can feel ourselves to be beyond the reach of love and logic.

When we become isolated in those dark spaces, surrounded by negativity and lack of concern, those dark spaces can become intolerable.

In these moments, this voice of despair may be the only one you hear.

When we are surrounded by people we trust, people we care about and people who care about us, we can withstand the pain and work our way out of those places.

In time we may even realise that those moments have given us something that has made us feel more alive.

There isn’t a townland in Ireland that hasn’t been affected by suicide. We do not see it coming, and the aftershock of fear can almost immobilise a community.

How are we to make sense of such tragedies? How are we to cope with the ripple effects of each of these deaths? What should we do? When can we know that the storm has passed over?

There is evidence that one suicide in a community influences the occurrence of further suicides. How this happens is not clear, but the term used to describe this is “contagion”.

Contagion, in this context, is defined as exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviour in a family, peer group or community.

This can result in an increase in suicide and attempted suicide.

Profound distress

Suicide clusters speak to a basic truth about the human condition: we are alone, but we are also all connected.

We are deeply connected with one another. In moments of profound distress, we may feel very alone, locked inside some hell that no one can see, that no one cares about.

We may well believe that how we act in these spaces makes no difference to anyone. But it does.

It is easy to “get” that how we are in our good moments affects the people around us.

Emotions are contagious. It is trickier to appreciate that how we are in moments of deep distress also affects others.

We may believe that suicide will end our pain and remove a burden for our families and friends. In reality, suicide does not end pain, it multiplies it, and passes it on.

Endless rumination about the causes of suicide accomplishes very little. What is useful is to itemise the three things that we know are helpful and protective:

People who seek help enjoy better mental health.

All of us need “one good adult” in our corner. This is someone in our lives who gets us, who listens to us and who believes in our potential.

Each of has some talent, ability or strength that needs to be recognised, valued and encouraged.

Connecting with whatever this talent may be the bridge out of despair.

All studies agree that the greatest need in any community following suicide is to reduce the distress of those most immediately affected.

Close friends and the family of the deceased need support to make sense of their loss, inasmuch as that is possible.

Unresolved or complicated bereavement, which is what inevitably follows a suicide, increases the likelihood that someone else may resort to suicide to end their unbearable grief or to somehow be reunited with the person they have lost.

Ripple effect Breaking the ripple effects of suicide begins with each one of us. We may blame the usual suspects – government, HSE – for what’s happening, as they are the gatekeepers to health and wellbeing for our communities.

But when will we stop waiting for the cavalry to arrive and make everything better? How long does it take for us to become concerned for each other’s wellbeing? How long before we see the link between how I’m living and the quality of those lives around me?

Look around you. Some people close to you are feeling really vulnerable right now. And they are watching you. What you are doing is affecting them.

A kind word from you may make a huge difference. This may sound trite, but believe me: there is nothing trite about it if you’re locked into despair and running out of road.

Tony Bates is chief executive and founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health