In the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams' death, I wrote this essay about how the rising epidemic of suicide will become a plague of biblical proportions, unless we, as people, take responsibility for changing our society.
Over one million people die through suicide worldwide each year.
The global suicide rate is 16 deaths per 100,000 people.
On average, one person dies through suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world.
1.8% of worldwide deaths are suicides.
Global suicide rates have increased 60% in the past 45 years.
On Monday, August 11th, 2014, the world wept as the news broke that the beloved Robin Williams had died; another tragedy in the war against suicide.
I hoped the death of someone as revered as Williams would finally force people to confront the issue of suicide, but just over a week later everybody has stopped talking about it. Our thoughts and conversations have reverted back to work, sports, entertainment and gossip.
It always does. It’s all so predictable.
Since Williams died, 21,600 people, on average, will have also died through suicide. We will never know these people, but they are just as important as Williams. Would they, and Williams, have died through suicide if society, as a whole, was more supportive of people with suicidal thoughts? We’ll never know, but I believe at least some of them may still be alive if it was.
We aren’t to blame for Williams’ death, but society needs to take responsibility for the rise in suicide being the reason people die. I believe sometimes people think of society as separate to themselves, and so don’t realise the impact and influence they can have on that society. Managing mental illness, overcoming suicidal thoughts – these are always easier with support. We don’t know who needs that support, so we need to work from the assumption that everyone does. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
It is easier for people to caricaturise illnesses like depression, bipolar and schizophrenia. To look beyond the veil, to empathise with the incredible person waging a war with their own mind, to begin to understand the reality that the darkness of mental illness does not discriminate, to accept that you yourself could be in that same psychological abyss, is too terrifying a thought for most people to entertain. It is this fear that is causing people to die. For the suicide rate to reverse, a change in approach to mental health is vital.
We need to remove the focus from preventing suicidal thoughts. It is as normal to think of suicide as it is to think about loved ones dying. There is nothing wrong with considering a scenario and debating the good and bad points internally. What we need to do is ensure that, when someone evaluates the consequences of suicide, they know they have reasons to stay in this world.
Suicide is not an action; it is a reaction to an illness, a situation or a society that has removed all hope or purpose from an individual’s world. Until the priority is giving people reasons to live, on an individual level, the suicide rate will continue to grow.
Cancer is an illness that ravages the body, draining it of all vitality and strength. A disease that dominates the life of every person afflicted with it, even the treatment is physically destructive: chemotherapy can leave someone without hair, extremely nauseous and confined to their bed. It is a devastating illness one that affects not only the patient but everyone else in their life.
Cancer is something that can manifest in every single person in the world, and that is why it is so scary. It is impossible to prevent cancerous growths; the reality is that cancer is a catch-all term for over 200 individual cancerous growths, and despite decades of research, there is no concrete answer to what causes cancer – all we have are theories and ideas. It is only once cancer is diagnosed that we can begin to manage the illness.
Sometimes, tragically, it is untreatable; the effects of cancer ensure the body cannot function in the manner required to stay alive. When cancer is terminal, we do everything we can to make the life of the afflicted as comfortable as possible.
The only difference between cancer and depression is that cancer attacks the physical self, whereas depression decimates the mind and soul. Sadly, the way society supports people with the ‘invisible illness’ is the polar opposite to those with the visibly-apparent diagnosis, and that is why the suicide rate is expanding at such an alarming rate.
Living with depression isn’t merely a fight or a battle; it’s a full-on war with your own mind. It’s a war that can never be won, because the only way the war ends is with death. Having depression is like having two brains controlling your body, except one of them is an enemy, one that learns every doubt, regret, insecurity and fear you have, then whispers them to you in your own voice, utterly indistinguishable from your normal thoughts.
Experiencing the void of emotion, the absence of hope and the absolute bleakness of depression leaves permanent scars. Nobody can ever be sure they have beaten the beast, because it is a mental demon, one that is so subtle that you can never truly know if it is you or the illness talking. There will never be a cure for depression, because no-one will ever be naïve enough to believe they have won.
We are nice to people with terminal cancer because we know they are going to die. We are all going to die, every last one of us. Some of us will face long fights with illnesses that are immediately apparent, others will wage internal wars for decades, never quite sure if they are winning or losing. Some will find coping strategies to manage their life well, others will need more support and different approaches. Some will be wildly successful; others will struggle just to find something to eat each day, but we will all die, and unless we start being nicer to people we don’t know, especially those employed in high-stress, low-paid careers like nursing, catering and retail, more people will turn to suicide.
Next time you walk in the street, put your phone in your pocket and smile at each stranger that you make eye contact with. Whether they smile, frown or avert their gaze, you will have tried to make their life better. Your smile could be perceived by someone as a sign they need to keep fighting. Your smile might already have saved someone’s life; a positive attitude that had a calming effect on someone fighting a war you didn’t even know existed. You may never change the wider world, but you can change the world for individual people dozens of times a day, just through the smallest attitude and behavioural changes.
None of us know what is going on in the lives of strangers. Nobody can comprehend the depth of the torment someone else is struggling with. By treating people with the respect and decency that comes with understanding we are all terminally ill, a lot of the stresses of life ease away, people become more pleasant and polite to each other, and the worlds we create for ourselves become places that aren’t so terrifying to live in.
Mahatma Gandhi said "Be the change you wish to see in the world." I wish to live in a friendlier, more caring world; one where people feel able to ask for help when they need it, where they feel free to be themselves, and where people accept that, although we all view the world differently, we are all doing our best to survive as long as possible. I’m going to try to build that world, and I’m starting at the beginning: by smiling at the next person I see.
Originally published August 24th, 2014.