Friday, November 22, 2013

Mental Health 105 - "I regret to inform you". The suicide bombshell.

It’s the worst email you can get in the morning, “I regret to inform you that our colleague and friend Nicholas passed away in the night”.

I've received this kind of email twice, and at the time you have no idea what has happened.  But sadly a few months later the rumours go around that Nicholas did no “pass away” peacefully.  I myself was temping in IT support at the time of one of those emails, and had to reclaim the machine of the deceased, going through files in his account and hard disk, deciding any work related ones.  Unfortunately for a number of files that meant opening, quickly visually scanning the contents, and moving anything that could be important to a shared drive.

I found it unnerving to go through his things, and really didn't want to delve into his private life.  But all the same, it became apparent even from my quick visual scanning of documents that he'd written a lot of letters to lawyers, going through divorce and custody hell.  Nicholas (not his real name) had been going through a difficult time, and few of us at work would have guessed.

Even now, it feels unfair, even under the shield anonymity to reveal this about him.  However these details did eventually come out during the inquest into his death many months later.

This isn't my only brush with suicide.  I've written previously about my friend Violet, and the effect her life and her death had on me.  There I wanted to celebrate her life, and to talk about how I dealt with mourning her loss.

There were some details I omitted though – I’d mentioned that Violet had issues with mental health which had seen her committed for a period of time, as well as a previous failed suicide attempts.  Ironically she was the first peer mental health sufferer who I formed an open friendship with, and she was severely influential in my life.  I learned that fellow sufferers can get a great deal of support by sharing their troubles with someone else who “gets it”.  This picture, like no other reflect my friendship with her,


Those conversations over the years of our friendship really turned my life around – because I could talk through things with her that it was difficult to talk to anyone else about, without judgement.

Sadly though in 2010 her life started to spiral – she was on a new medication system which she was finding difficult to find balance on.  Unfortunately people have to occasionally change their meds, and as Violet was on a combination of pills for various difficulties she had, there could be complex side effects that could cause whole weeks wiped out in a “zombie” state as she adjusted.  She’d also spent years waiting for a free slot with a specialist therapist to try and deal with some of the issues and reduce her medication dependence.

In hindsight we’d talked about her stints in mental institutions, and she’d ominously said that she’d never go back there.  Her landlord started motions to (illegally) evict her, something which is a difficult trial for someone with her level of anxiety, for which your flat is your only “safe” area.

One day she went quiet.  People phoned, but there was no reply.  The next day, the Police battered down the door, and found her dead on her bed surrounded by empty packets of medication.  It took months to get information – I was told her blood toxicology results were inconclusive.  She had alcohol and elevated levels of medication.  Coroner eventually erred on the side of accidental over deliberate overdose, but given the circumstances, I've always been in doubt.

Whether Violet was or wasn't a statistic, suicide is unfortunately something that does go on.  In New Zealand, suicide kills more people than road traffic accidents (almost twice the number) – and almost 75% of those who die are male.  That is an alarming number – it’s the single preventable cause of death in men 16-40.  It’s a chilling statistic.

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Whirlwind Workshop on men’s mental health on Kapiti.  Whirlwind is an initiative to promote men’s mental health, and provide a network to both support and discuss issues frankly.  I'm pleased to say that Qual IT, one of New Zealand's premier IT test consultancies are amongst their sponsors – it’s nice to see an IT company involved in this, as going around the support groups in Wellington, I've seen an alarming number of our industry as end users of these kinds of services, and their tale is often all too the same.  Project managers and programmers who pushed themselves, until something broke, with the some finally seeing a doctor for help, or eventually ending up in care for a limited time.

Yet they are still the lucky ones – for some, their problems, and the dark places they inhabit just feel too overwhelming.  Martin Sloman of Whirlwind sums it up when he says it’s a difficult thing for many men to admit they need help, “men are very bad at coming forward and embracing this kind of challenge … it’s unblokey”, and yet this attitude of shame is leading people to feel it’s easier to end their life than to live with the shame of a badge like “depression”.

Problems in life can feel daunting – but in life as in IT, we know that breaking complexity down, you can work on it a piece at a time.  Problems can be dealt with, support can be got, but death is so huge and permanent and "unfixable".

Nicholas’s suicide ended the custody battle with his wife – but it left a gaping hole in the life of his children.  Something could have been settled and negotiated.  But instead his children are left trying to understand why he did this, and why they’ll never see their father again.

As I said about Violet, before the inquest  I would spend alternate days so upset she was dead, or feeling so incredibly peeved she did this.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, I really encourage you to talk to someone – pick up the phone.  A good place to start is the Samaritans – most countries have a branch somewhere.  If that doesn’t help, just type the words “suicide hotline” into Google, and see what your local options are.

Don’t think you’re too weak, and don’t think it’s just you!

A powerful video - and worth watching ...



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