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World Suicide Prevention Day 2021

World Suicide Prevention Day is a time to be grateful for the growing movement to recognise people’s mental illness and desperation and to stand by people who have lost friends and relatives to suicide, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ.

Almost everyone you meet says that the period of Coronavirus has been stressful. They have variously fallen ill, lost relatives and friends, lost work and income, struggled to keep housing, spent much of their time isolated from friends and family, had to help children study and keep hopeful, and lived with constant uncertainty. In such stress, mental health issues and psychological distress can present. Doctors have warned us that vulnerable people are more at risk of suicide.

One of the factors that adds to the complexity of mental illness and to suicide is the stigma that often attaches to them. Stigma makes people blame themselves for their condition, can make it difficult for them to speak about it. It can also be hard for others to listen to them or enter into conversation with them.  They and the people who care for them are wrapped in a silence in which fear, resentment and despair can breed. When people take their own lives, too, stigma makes their family and friends uncomfortable speaking about them. Others can feel uncomfortable in their presence, with the result that they have to deal alone with their grief, bewilderment and feelings of anger. They are then at a higher risk of mental illness and of taking their own lives.

For that reason support for the relatives and friends of people who have taken their lives is an important factor in preventing suicide. Suicide is not just the individual and isolated event that stigma threatens to make it. It is a social event whose effects reach out through a large network of relationships. That network can be a source of exclusion and of risk, or a source of healing and inclusion. The work of Jesuit Social Services’ Support After Suicide program in counselling relatives and friends of people who have suicided and in providing a safe forum for them to meet and to talk together has recognised and met this need.

Frequent lockdowns have deepened people’s anxiety. Many people, however, have also felt more free to express their feelings and more ready to offer mutual support. In their comments on the restrictions caused by the virus and by the challenges of their sport, football, cricket and tennis players and athletes, who traditionally have been expected to tough it out silently, have spoken about their mental health difficulties, withdrawn from sport to nurture themselves, and supported one another in the face of criticism.

Journalists writing about lockdowns, too, have written sensitively about the pressures it puts on mental health and have highlighted the importance of conversation and continually reaching out to people who are doing it hard. Although stigma still exists in relation to suicide and mental illness and needs constantly to be recognised and overcome, society has shown greater acceptance of what was once seen as weakness, and greater appreciation of the need and benefit of speaking about it.

World Suicide Prevention Day is a time to be grateful for the growing movement to recognise people’s mental illness and desperation, to stay with them, and to refuse to allow taboos to isolate them.

It is also a time to stand by people who have lost friends and relatives during the pandemic, and especially those whose relatives have suicided. In a time of so much exclusion, it is important to include those who suffer from mental illness and to reach out to those who grieve for people who have taken their own lives.