Six years ago, Remembrance Sunday fell on the 11th of November. Same as today. I was visiting Saagar in Durham that weekend and had the privilege of attending the special Sunday service at the ancient, opulent Durham Cathedral. The music and words were deeply moving. I felt lucky to have found a spot to stand at the back of the cathedral that day. I met up with Saagar afterwards and we went for a long walk, lunch and then we had a hot chocolate at the Railway station before my return.
I was surprised to find that over a million Indian soldiers fought in WW1 at Somme, France. At least 74,187 Indian soldiers died and 67,000 were wounded during the war. We rightly remember and honour those who lost their lives serving their country. But do we learn from history?
Northern Europeans have mass murdered indigenous people of entire continents, now Australia and USA, diminishing their numbers to tiny percentages. Then they funded scholars to write books to justify these acts of violence against innocents. Today, I remember and honour all those people who died defending their right to exist.
India was known as ‘the golden bird’ before the Empire established itself in that country. After years of exploitation and oppression they left behind a shattered subcontinent. A fractured country. 14 million people were displaced and several hundred thousand lost their lives as a result. I salute all those innocents who died for no fault of their own.
“What do you think of western civilisation?”, someone asked Mahatma Gandhi.
He replied, “That would be a good idea.”
We continue to make war in the name of peace. We spend millions on finding more deadly and cowardly ways of killing people. We never forget the 3000 people who died in America on 9/11 but we don’t remember the 500 that have been dying every week in Syria for the last 7 years and in Yemen for the last four. Before that, in Afghanistan and Iraq. All, for peace and liberty. Today, I remember all people, everywhere who have been traumatised and displaced by war and those who have died violent deaths as a result of war. May humankind learn to be kind.
My laptop claims to have at least 8 films on it but for some strange reason, on a train from Birmingham to London, it agreed to play just one, called, ‘The Help’. It’s about the writing of a book compiling the stories of African American maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. A book about an open ugly secret. About the courage of a few to start talking about it as a mark of protest. About the collective impact of small actions in bringing about big changes.
Yesterday was World Mental Health day and the UK became the first country in the world to announce a minister for Suicide Prevention. The day before yesterday, I learnt that Health Education England are very keen to put measures in place to prevent suicides within medical practitioners. Having been a part of the Suicide Prevention Community for the last 4 years, the one profession that is most conspicuous by its absence is Psychiatrists.
At 2 different meetings, I happened to meet 2 different Consultant Psychiatrists. On hearing Saagar’s story, one of them said he was very sorry but ‘this has been happening for 30 years’. I went blank. I just looked at him. I wonder what the public’s reaction would be if a surgeon would publicly admit that his surgical team has been making the same errors, that have been costing people their lives for 30 years. Yes. These are systemic errors. They are difficult to tackle. But, even today, youngsters like Saagar are dying because of lack of leadership within the specialty of Psychiatry, like they have been for the past 30 years.
The other, extremely prominent and respected Consultant Psychiatrist completely rubbished Mindfulness, Yoga and Meditation, without having tried any of them. He said that all these interventions have side effects. He believed that a Psychiatrist is only meant to attend to the most extreme cases. Their role comes into play only after these 5 have been called upon – parents, schools, GPs, CAMHS and Talking therapies. I am sure he knows that many youngsters die while on the waiting list, without ever getting to see a proper Psychiatrist, once. I am also sure he knows the side effects of psychiatric medications that are offered generously to all and sundry by non-psychiatrists. Lastly, I am sure he also knows how unsupported the GPs feel when faced with patients who are severely mentally unwell due to slow and inefficient response from the secondary services. And, I am sure it’s all down to poor funding. The same excuse that we’ve had for decades gone by and will have for decades to come. How about some imaginative leadership?
As parents, let’s start by saying to our kids in words and actions –
‘You is kind. You is smart. You is important.’
To me, I say – ‘I is kind. I is smart. I is important.’
You could too.
Once again, I found myself in Swansea. The meeting was planned weeks in advance and I had travelled 4 hours to be there. I, a practising doctor, once again, seeking light in the realm of the unexplained. Why was I there? Because I wanted to write a book and I wanted to know what Saagar thought. Does that make sense? Like hell it does. That’s why I had trudged all the way there and would be changing trains for the rest of the day to get back home.
One whole wall in the waiting room was teaming with thank-you cards, mostly from women who believed they had had babies as a result of Acupuncture or other therapies received at the centre. It was a modest space with a tired fawn carpet and upright wooden chairs with plastic, foam maroon coverings. Like all waiting-room-chairs all over the country.
Her big smile snatched my gaze away from the wall and welcomed me into her space. She guided me up the stairs into the same consultation room where we had met more than a year ago. The familiar potted palm, the large window and the same arrangement of the 2 comfy sofas by the fire-place, facing each other with a small wooden table placed in between. Déjà vu, all over again.
I sat facing her and the window. She sat facing me and the door. We started with a brief catch-up and then she connected with Saagar. She said he’s happy. He’s growing his hair and following the cricket. She thinks she can hear him speak French. Is he saying something about Guy’s hospital? He says he enjoyed his time and friendships at Dulwich. He mentioned a particularly close ‘black’ friend. I am sure he means the one coming home to lunch tomorrow. He says he loved the large window by his bed with the great view of the London cityscape.
He felt there was a place for him at the wedding. It was fun, especially the bit by the river in the early morning hours. He must have meant the photo-shoot of Si and I in our normal clothes. It shows us in our ‘natural habitat’. The camera loved the early morning sun. So, we complied. ‘Natural’ and ‘photos’ don’t belong in the same sentence. We tried our damnedest best, seeking inspiration from Hollywood and Bollywood combined, getting confused and dramatic and giving rise to some cracking moments. He was there.
He offers me a Green Tara through her. A Buddhist manifestation of active compassion, Tara is the saviouress, the one who reaches out and responds freely to all who suffer. She is fearless and boundless. He wants me to have a jade statue of Tara. He knows my heart and mind. We walk in the same light.
She says the book will happen. A book of beauty and joy that was him. Of his continued presence. Of hope.
( A 20 minute video of an awareness raising presentation for trainee anaesthetists at a national conference in Glasgow from earlier this month: Being Human)
[E-mail address for Moya O’Dwyer, the medium: firstname.lastname@example.org]
It’s a dry winter morning. I am in my favourite red jumper and floral denims, on my way to the therapist. I have seen him for 3 years and I remain completely unfinished. My train will arrive at this platform, Platform number 1, West Norwood Station in 4 minutes. There are only 2 tracks and only 2 platforms here. The sun is in hiding and all trains are delayed, allegedly due to bad weather. Despite 2 people ahead of me in the queue there is enough time for me to get a cappuccino with one and a half sugars from the newly-opened kiosk, the Blackbird Bakery. The pair of sweet, smiley girls behind the counter have a way of making things work while maintaining an environment of relaxed, chatty friendliness.
A toddler in a pram doesn’t want her half-eaten kitkat anymore. She wants to feed it to the birds. Her mum takes it from her and lovingly puts it in her own mouth. She gets a quizzical look from her daughter. She beams a gentle smile back on to her baby.
Just as the train pulls up behind me, my order is ready. In the here and now, the yellowness of the foliage on the ground and on trees is bright as stippled sunshine. My drink smells like the warmth of Brazil. Grateful for no rain, I turn around and step onto the train holding my hand-warming and heart-warming treat.
I look for a forward-facing window seat with a table. The one I find seats an unclaimed blue knitted scarf, coiled up like a snake. An overweight elderly lady sits with a smile opposite me.
‘Is this your’s?’ I ask.
The train starts to move.
‘No.’ says she.
‘How are you?’
‘I am ok’, she says in a strong Spanish accent.
‘Doing anything nice today?’
‘Going to see a friend in Victoria. We don’t talk much. We meet once a week. We go for hot-chocolate.’
She looks down at a picture of 3 pretty young women in her magazine.
‘I always wanted daughters but I got 2 sons and1 grandson. No girls.’
‘Boys are lovely too.’
‘Yes. But I would have liked a girl.’
West Norwood station is well behind us by now.
Saagar, my son comes alive in my mind.
Platform 1 was where he spent his last couple of hours. That was 3 years ago. He was more than I could have dreamt of. All I wanted was him, his happiness. Nothing else.
He was there for at least two whole hours. No one spoke with him. Small talk saves lives. For every life lost on the railway, 6 are saved by those around them. Only if someone had interrupted his train of thoughts. Only if someone had trusted their instincts enough, to act. Only if someone had cared enough to ask if he was ok. Only if everyone had the basic tools of suicide prevention, just like they do for choking and drowning. Who knows?
Now, all I want is for him to come back to me.
Free on-line training for all, in Suicide prevention, launched by the Zero Suicide Alliance. 20 minutes of life-saving skills : https://www.relias.co.uk/zero-suicide-alliance/form.
231 school kids died of suicide in 2015.
Please support PAPYRUS in tackling this impossible reality.
‘Take a minute, change a life.’
Taking time to look out for someone who may be struggling, encouraging them to talk, offering a word of support and listening could help change the course of their life. Making someone a cup of tea, inviting them for a walk or a run, asking them,”Are you OK?’ could make a world of a difference to them. It would surely enrich your life too.
This series of short films is about real people and real stories. It’s about life and death. It’s about what we can do as individuals and as communities to help each other through dark times. It’s about you and me. Please scroll all the way down to watch all the snippets.
A vigil will be held on Thursday, the 14th of September at Hyde Park, Speaker’s corner at 6.30 pm. We will get together to honour the lives of those lost by suicide. Please bring pictures, candles, stories, poems, memories and songs. It will be an occasion for us to celebrate our love.
Joe put an advert in his local paper which read: “Senior citizen, 89, seeks employment in Paignton area. 20 hours plus per week. Still able to clean, light gardening, DIY and anything. I have references. Old soldier, airborne forces. Save me from dying of boredom!” He said he had lived alone since his wife, Cassandra, died two years ago and had been lonely. “When you live on your own there is no one to speak to. Since she died I’ve moved into a flat and it’s a big block. Once you walk into that flat it’s like solitary confinement,” he said. He is due to start work at a cafe in the town after the owners of the family-run business spotted his request.
Film-maker Sue Bourne says it’s a major public health issue. Her BBC documentary is called “Age of Loneliness”. It tells the stories of 14 people, young and old. “A silent epidemic that’s starting to kill us. But we don’t want to talk about it. No-one really wants to admit they are lonely.”
Si is away for a week. It’s only tolerable because I know I will see him at the end of the week. I tell myself it’s ok but it’s not easy. I miss him. I have something planned with friends for every other evening of the week so that I have something to look forward to. Something to keep me distracted. I can’t imagine how it must feel to loose a spouse or a partner you love and have been with for decades.
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Editor: Brian Pelan