At the age of 51, he was finally consumed by the very thing he loved to consume. He died peacefully in his sleep. Pat, his wife was sad but knew it was inevitable. She carried on.
9 months later her son Kevin went on a Summer camp. He was 15. The camp site had been shut all winter. 2 days before the start date, the camp site had been checked by officials and declared safe. The lads arrived with great memories of the previous year and masses of energy and excitement. They started with a race. With a big smile on his face, Mark flew to the finish line ahead of everyone else and was instantly charred.
Pat’s family wanted to take care of her. They moved her from her family home in Surrey, to a house closer to her brother’s, in Essex. Pat went quiet. She silently and diligently pulled the shafts of her hair out from their roots one by one till she created white little clearings on her scalp. She scratched those clearings with such vigour that they turned into raw, red, weeping craters. She would empty the kettle before plugging it into the mains. She wore her clothes back to front, inside-out. She stood by the window for hours, waiting. She drove down the motorway in the opposite direction. Her family couldn’t help her. They thought she needed to be moved to an Institution for the insane.
A doctor in the Isle of Mann was well-known for his abilities in this field. Pat’s sister-in-law asked him if he would make an exception and help Pat even though she did not live on the Isle. He kindly agreed. He saw her. He unpicked her heart. He unwrapped the wounds in it. It was an excruciating process. She felt he was cruel, forcing her into the darkness of her soul with a torch, untangling the tight knots in her mind, wading through whirlpools of turbulence within.
After 5 weeks he invited her to live in his family home. He encouraged her to walk down the street. The first few times he went with her. Thereafter she walked alone, with her eyes fixated on her shoes. He suggested she try looking up and tell him what she saw. “Blossoms on trees, the church spire, white fluffy clouds, birds, light…”
By the time the hair-dresser had finished with her, she was ready to go home.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Falkner. Requiem for a Nun.
The echoes of past traumas get subconsciously played out by us in our everyday lives. Sigmund Freud called it ‘repetition compulsion’ – an attempt of the unconscious mind to replay the unresolved so that we can ‘get it right’. This mechanism drives its way through generations. Jung also noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away. It gets stored in our unconscious and finds expression in other ways. He says,” When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate.”
Here’s an example: Jake was 19. He hadn’t slept a full night’s sleep in more than a year. He had developed dark circles around his eyes and a blank stare in them. He looked at least 10 years older. He had been a star student and a great athlete but the insomnia had left him lifeless. This thing had no explanation and none of his doctors or psychologists or naturopaths could figure it out.
It had started with Jake waking up shivering one night at 3.30 am, frightened to death. No amount of woollen clothing warmed him up. Soon, insomnia became a daily ordeal. Despite knowing that his fear was irrational, Jake was helpless and could not relax. The ‘freezing’ feeling associated with the first episode was quite peculiar.
On exploration of Jake’s family history, this story came out: His mum’s brother, Uncle Colin, whom he had never met had frozen to death at the age of 19. He was checking power lines in a storm in the Northwest of Canada. He struggled to hang on but eventually fell face down in a blizzard, lost consciousness and died of hypothermia. The family never spoke his name again.
Now, thirty years later, Jake was unable to slip into sleep at the same age as his Uncle. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jake, falling asleep must have felt the same. Once Jake could see this link, he was able to free himself of it with the help of healing techniques taught by Dr Mark Wolynn, a neuroscientist with an expertise in breaking inherited family patterns. His book “It didn’t start with you”, describes some of these practical tools.
Scientists are now able to identify bio-markers as evidence of traumas passed down from one generation to the next. Studies on Holocaust survivors and their children have revolutionised the understanding and treatment of PTSD all over the world. Be it fear, guilt, low self-esteem or anxiety, the roots of these issues may reside in the traumas of our parents, grand-parents and even great-grandparents.
84 life-size statues of men were seen standing at the edge of tall buildings in central London in late March representing the same number of men lost to suicide every week in the UK – a hard hitting visual project aiming to bring this tragic loss out into the open from behind closed doors.
Common threads emerged from articles published in April:
“Students more likely to kill themselves” in the Times: Researchers from a Hong Kong University analysed the ONS figures and found that the number of university students in Britain increased by 5 per cent between 2012 and 2016. The total number of suicides among students increased by 32 per cent, from 139 to 183 deaths. A think tank said that a law banning universities from contacting the friends and family of students who are struggling should be revisited.
The number of first year university students reporting mental health problems in UK Universities has risen five fold in 10 years. A combination of increasing awareness of mental health issues, a lowering of the taboo previously attached to mental health services, mounting debts, homesickness, loneliness and a greater sense of anxiety about the future may be some of the reasons for it. Some vice-chancellors still think that mental well being is not the business of universities and it’s just about developing the mind. But developing minds means nothing unless students settle down well in their new environment and be ready to learn.
According to recent ONS statistics on loneliness, people between 16-24 are at the epicentre of the loneliness epidemic in the UK. More so than the elderly. Women were found to be lonelier than men. Other variables were renting a home rather than owning one, being single or widowed, having poor health and feeling disconnected from the local community.
In an article entitled “Doctors knew my son was suicidal. I should have been told before he died” in the Guardian, I raise this question yet again: Is confidentiality more important than helping someone at risk to stay alive? Is it correct for a father to be informed by doctors after the death of his son,”Now that he is dead I can tell you that this was not his first attempt”?
When Saagar was ill, he filled out an online form and referred himself to IAPTs – Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. This programme began in 2008 and has transformed treatment of adult anxiety disorders and depression in England. Over 900,000 people now access IAPT services each year. I have used this service in the past and found it useful. I suggested to him to fill out the form a second time and he did. They usually call back within a day or two. He didn’t hear back from them.
I recently found out that IAPTs does not look after suicidal people. I would like to know what they do when they read a self-referral form of this nature.
There is a vacuum in the NHS. There is little face to face support for those who feel life is no longer worth living. Why do most people with physical illnesses ask for help? Possibly because they trust they will receive appropriate help from the system. Why is it that many people with mental anguish don’t approach the medical services for help? Probably due to lack of trust.
The Listening Place works towards filling that vacuum. A few days ago I visited their premises, a short walk from Pimlico station, in the heart of London. This airy, green, warm and welcoming place felt ideal for anyone in need of care, support and understanding. Here, individuals can speak openly about their feelings without being judged. They receive on-going support from trained volunteers over a number of weeks as deemed appropriate. The volunteers help relieve emotional pain and stress and offer opportunities to consider alternatives to suicide. Anyone over 18 can be referred to them by themselves, other charities, NHS as well as health and social care organisations. They try to give continuity by facilitating you to speak with someone who knows you from before. They charge nothing and keep your information confidential. It is remarkable that they are open 9 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week.
Sarah Anderson, who was once director at the largest call centre for the Samaritans, set up The Listening Place in 2016 and the service has since helped hundreds of individuals with its unique approach to care. During our chat, Sarah’s passion and dedication to the cause comes through, loud and clear.
The world needs more people who give a damn about other people.
(PS: Through the grapevine I hear the future funding of IAPTs is in jeopardy. The vacuum grows.)
During his holidays, Saagar and his friends would be subjected to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 second hand, as their mothers listened. They would later have amusing/interesting discussions about breast feeding, female education and employment challenges. This station was pre-set on the car-radio and at home. It was designated as the ‘old people’s’ radio-station by him. Invariably, ‘Gardener’s question time’ would come on while we were in the car together, travelling over the weekend. It was quaint by its sheer irrelevance to us as we could barely keep our 4 nameless indoor plants alive. Our urban pre-occupations meant we didn’t have a gardening vocabulary.
‘Just a minute’ was our all-time favourite – a panel of funny people asked to speak for one whole minute on a given topic without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The seemingly innocent topics often held great potential for hilarity, for example, billiards, the best thing about cats, how I spread a little happiness, keeping a straight face, my love of the absurd, garages and such. The correct and incorrect challenges posed by the panellists generated tremendous amount of laughter. Our attempts at giving each other topics resulted in great amusement.
On Thursday evening I was asked if I’d like to be a guest on Woman’s hour to talk about Saagar. It was unbelievable. It made me smile and cry at the same time. What a paradox! Of course I’d love to be on Woman’s hour. Under these circumstances? Meeting Jenni Murray was an honour. She was down to earth and professional, looking just as I imagined, in her trademark glasses sitting just above the tip of her nose.I told her she had my dream job. She said Joan Baez had been in the studio the day before, sitting at the same chair as me. How cool! Oops! Saagar prohibited me from saying ‘cool’ as he thought it sounded all wrong coming from me. I wonder how he would feel about this interview if he knew. Maybe he does.
Despite making notes and preparing as well as I could, I was a bit flummoxed by some of the questions. I didn’t say everything I wanted to. I hope there will be other opportunities. This conversation must grow until everyone is a part of it in a meaningful and constructive way. In a way that saves lives.
A recording of the interview with brilliant and committed Mr Ged Flynn, the CEO of PAPYRUS and I:
All those decades ago when I was at school, bullies were visible. Their names were known. They were often big built and their demeanour, unpleasant. Girls could be bitchy, forming little clubs ousting this one or that one depending on how jealous they were of them. The playground was the scene for most unplayful activities. Lunch time was about much more than just lunch.
The only respite was that I knew when I left school I could leave it all behind and come home feeling safe. I wouldn’t have to deal with all that unpleasantness that went on at school.
Now, bullying happens over the electromagnetic waves all times of day and night, incessantly with no breaks. It can reach toilets and bedrooms. The instigators don’t have to have names or forms. They can be cowardly as hell and yet have the mean pleasure of bullying vulnerable people. The abusive messages are often un-erasable, making it possible for the victim to visit them repeatedly and being humiliated and traumatised over and over again. It is inescapable.
In Arabic, ‘Sarahah’ means ‘honesty’. It is also a highly trending app for anonymous messaging, invented by Mr Towfiq (above) from Egypt. He says it was designed so people could have honest feedback on their strengths and weaknesses from their colleagues at work. But in the west it is the perfect platform for anonymous nastiness.
Suicide by mental health in-patients continues to fall, most clearly in England where the decrease has been around 60% during 2004-14. This fall began with the removal of ligature points to prevent deaths by hanging but has been seen in suicides on and off the ward and by all methods. Despite this success, there were 76 suicides by in-patients in the UK in 2014, including 62 in England.
Suicides after discharge:
The first three months after hospital discharge continue to be a period of high suicide risk. In England the number of deaths rose to 200 in 2014 after a fall in the previous year. Risk is highest in the first two weeks post-discharge: in a previous study we have shown that these deaths are associated with preceding admissions lasting less than 7 days and lack of care planning. There has been a fall in post-discharge deaths occurring before first service contact, suggesting recognition of the need for early follow-up. In all there were around 460 patient suicides in acute care settings – in-patient and post-discharge care and crisis teams – in the UK in 2014.
First of all I want to say that every suicide is a huge tragedy and must be prevented at all costs. Behind each of these numbers are precious lives and beautiful people. I don’t allow myself to forget that even when I am angry. This blog is a mere observation on how I have seen politics being played in front of my eyes in the last week. In light of the above findings, in consultation with his expert advisors and in all his wisdom, Mr Jeremy Hunt has decided to focus his attention on in-patient deaths – a group that is manned by the most highly trained professionals in a very controlled environment, a group that is on the list of ‘never-events’, a group that has already shown a decrease by 60%, a group where even a small reduction in numbers will amount to a big percentage and will make him look good.
With all good intentions, he has converted a healthy aspiration of Zero-suicide in the community to an unhealthy target for in-patients creating huge anxieties. Last week at the NSPA conference I heard Mr Hunt speak in the most self-congratulatory of tones about how wonderful it is that UK is the first country to legislate for ‘Parity of Esteem’. I am sorry Sir, that means nothing on the ground. The workforce coming in contact with the majority of suicidal people in the UK is largely untrained. They don’t even know how to talk with them, let alone ‘look-after’ them. The massive funding cuts focus on mental health which in turn results in poor training of junior doctors. When questioned directly about ‘parity of training’, he masterfully slips and slides away.