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It was New Year’s Eve when a then-14-year-old Amy* found herself lying in bed planning to take her own life.
According to Samaritans data from 2019, suicide rates among under 25s in England and Wales have increased by 93.8% since 2012 – an alarming trend projecting some of the highest rates in recent years, and one that puts a magnifying glass on the issues within the mental health space.
As the mental health conversation makes its way into the mainstream, why does it feel like we’re seeing more people than ever considering, and following through with, suicide?
‘When I was a teenager, I didn’t even know what mental health was. It really wasn’t spoken about. I knew people who had mental health issues but I don’t think I ever understood my own mental health. I probably didn’t know anything about it until coming to university. It used to feel like a really distant thing – it didn’t feel close’, Amy told UNILAD.
For Amy, who’s now in her early twenties, her struggles with anxiety date back to being as young as five or six, but it was at secondary school where things really started to reach breaking point, admitting that ‘growing up around people who weren’t open about mental health’ became ‘such a detriment to my own mental wellbeing’.
Citing a toxic home situation and severe bullying at school, including being told to end her life by one of the bullies, Amy found herself self-harming, with her depression and anxiety reaching new, unbearable heights. ‘A lot of people at my school self-harmed and I think seeing other people doing it can give you the idea of also doing it and then once you do, it’s a thing that just keeps happening,’ she explained.
Desperately trying to find a way to cope with how she was feeling, Amy turned to social media – a move she looks back on with a somewhat different lens. ‘I started this Instagram account where I would basically post how I felt. Looking back on it, it’s stupid because I think I use [social media] now not in an unhealthy way but if you’re using it for mental health and talking about how down you are, it can spur people on to send you nasty messages.’
‘I didn’t follow anyone that I knew on the account, I literally just posted – I don’t know what my logic was or what I was hoping to get out of it. I guess maybe I just wanted one person to care’.
By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, Amy felt like she had no way of dealing with her feelings anymore, and took an overdose before posting it on her Instagram account, explaining she ‘didn’t know what my logic was at all – I probably didn’t have any at that moment in time. I really didn’t know what I was thinking – you don’t think about it at all at that moment’.
In the aftermath of her first attempt, Amy said she was asked to apologise to those around her, telling UNILAD:
I ended up deleting the account and actually got in a lot of trouble for causing trauma to this other person’s child in the school – I had been told to apologise to the kid for making them freak out. My family had even said I was the one bullying those girls or their parents blamed me for it. So, I was asked to apologise to all of them for scaring them – it was all about them.
Some parents aren’t good at dealing with mental health – my family certainly wasn’t and still isn’t – and they just thought I was being a drama queen and attention seeking because that’s what people think you are. I remember someone saw one of the cuts on my arm and I got called attention seeking. Even if someone did leave that out for people to see – you should never call it attention seeking.
Being made to feel as though she was to blame meant Amy struggled to open up to those around her again: ‘When people are telling you its all your fault and you should apologise and you should feel guilty, it meant I never spoke about my mental health after that with anyone really, apart from a therapist.’
When she did reach out for support, however, the initial interaction was sadly far from what she’d hoped for. ‘I went to the GP and said I was feeling really, really down – I reckon at this point I was probably depressed, but I was told ‘oh it’s probably just exam stress. Just stop stressing you’ll be fine’. After that, my mental health got seriously bad.’
Conversation then turns to the classic broken bone analogy, one that often gets thrown around to illustrate the difference in which mental health issues are treated compared to other health issues. Although, it’s hard to compare mental illness to a broken arm or leg. ‘It’s so true when people say if you go in with a broken bone they’re immediately concerned,’ Amy woefully admits. ‘But when you go in pretty much saying you’re on the brink of doing something and get turned away – I didn’t even understand what I was feeling – I was looking to them to help me understand and they literally just told me it was exam stress.
‘I was saying I was in a really really bad place and they just didn’t listen to me.’
Sadly, three years later, Amy found herself in that dark place again after getting into an abusive relationship, as well as the continuing problems in the family. Aged 17, she attempted to take her own life for a second time.
‘I had got back home and I was drunk and took an overdose – more than I had the first time. I woke up the next morning and realised it hadn’t worked so went into school to do my drama A-level performance,’ she recalled. ‘But, I realised after looking it up that it can still cause damage to your liver in the long run so I told my mum and was taken to hospital to A&E. It was really weird. I was taken up to the child’s ward because I was 17 at the time and had a drip put in me. It was all sorts of weird sat there – nobody was saying anything.’
Looking back, Amy admits that alcohol can escalate a lot of these feelings: ‘Alcohol was really bad – I feel like it can fuel you feeling really sh*t and can really make me feel on the verge. It just makes things 10 times more intense.’
Unless you’ve been there, it can be hard to understand what’s going through your head in that moment of crisis. Amy describes it as feeling ‘completely defeated’.
‘Once you’ve got it in your head and you’re set on doing it, it feels very hard to back out because you almost commit to it to yourself. I was so depressed I didn’t see a way out. But there’s always a way out because if there wasn’t I would still hate living right now and I don’t.’
Amy also spoke about the stereotypes often thrown around about suicide, one being that it’s ‘selfish’, for example. ‘For me, I was getting so badly bullied, so tired of dealing with everything and so sick of being at the brunt of it, that I felt like I was probably a burden to still be alive. I was just completely exhausted – I had literally tried my hardest. So, then to be called selfish when all you’ve done is try to stay alive and you’re at your wit’s end and you’ve carried on each day – you don’t realise how long that took me to try hanging on until the very last minute.’
Amy talked about the feelings evoked by these sweeping assumptions in a strikingly frank way, telling UNILAD:
It wasn’t a case of I’m a bit ‘meh’, I’m not having a great time so I’m just going to do it. It was a build-up of so many different things and aspects of my life. If I had a list going through everything it would have been: school, bad; home, bad; this person, bad; friends, bad. It was an accumulation – not a spur of the moment decision but being pushed to your breaking point. That’s why it p*sses me off when people say suicide is selfish because if it was selfish it would be easy – it would be an easy decision to make and it’s never easy.
As soon as I tried to talk about it, I had to apologise to everyone else and the focus was the impact I’d had on everyone else, I was the bully – it was ridiculous. Looking back on it now, it was a joke. Especially when your family says that as well. People would rather flip it and turn it around on the one person and keep them silent than actually talk about mental health and have that conversation.
That being said, Amy, who is quick to tell me she’s now 100% ‘grateful’ her attempts didn’t work after receiving the support she needed, has plenty of positives to offer when it comes to reaching out for help and coming out the other side, including the benefits of medication and therapy, as well as finding a professional who is the right fit. In Amy’s case, after seeing five therapists, she found two that really helped, as well as a GP who she feels understood her and ‘didn’t belittle’ her when she asked to go on antidepressants.
‘Therapy and medication did really work – I see them as things to help you get back on track and make you better equipped to deal with things in the future.’
Although, more than anything, Amy was keen to emphasise the importance of having frank, direct conversations about suicide. ‘One of the common myths about suicide is that you shouldn’t talk about it because it will encourage you to do it, but actually talking about it is the one thing that will help stop it. If someone stopped me after my first attempt, if someone talked to me, it definitely wouldn’t have happened the second time – I can probably almost say hand on heart.
‘If people actually want to create change, you have to talk about the nitty-gritty stuff. You can’t just talk about depression and anxiety – you have to talk about suicide, you have to talk about bipolar, BPD, schizophrenia. All of the stuff, including the mental health topics people don’t want to talk about. There’s the surface level stuff were all beginning to talk about which is obviously such an improvement to how things used to be, but when you start actually getting down to it, there’s no point just touching on the surface because nothing gets solved.
‘Mental health is such a hard thing to understand, but people really do just need to listen because, as someone who’s tried to take their own life, talking about it out loud you then realise how illogical your ‘reasons’ are. It’s not always about someone talking at you, it’s about someone simply being there and listening,’ she added. ‘It’s more than ‘you okay?’ Or ‘#BeKind‘ – people are just too scared to address these difficult conversations directly.’
This is a point Ian Hurst, suicide prevention instructor, adult mental health first aid instructor and co-founder of We are Hummingbird, echoes: ‘Whilst it can seem like the last thing you should do, actually asking someone directly and with confidence is the best approach. Individuals fear they will plant the seed of suicide when asking the question, however, this is really not the case. Asking someone directly will grant ‘permission’ for the person to in most cases answer honestly.’
Ian also warns of the dangers of a ‘sudden calmness or even euphoria’, which he brands as ‘the most misunderstood element of suicide behaviour’.
He told UNILAD: ‘Often we hear shock and surprise from loved ones who have lost someone to suicide, saying ‘we thought they had got better, they seemed more themselves lately’. However, this is often the final element of what is known as the suicide continuum. We all feel a sense of relief when someone we care about suddenly ‘feels better’, we assume that all is well and good, however, often this can be due to the individual being at peace with their decision.’
Ian also urges those who believe someone is in immediate danger of suicide to not leave that person alone, explaining: ‘People who receive support from friends and family are less likely to act on their suicidal plans.’
Although, when it comes to the typically hush-hush topic of suicide, Ian stresses that we need to ‘stop looking for a ‘fix’ and accept that change and recovery is an ongoing process and not something that happens overnight’.
Poking at the irony of the selfish suicide stereotype, Amy encourages those struggling to be ‘more selfish’ and put themselves first: ‘You’re not meant to be happy 24/7 in life, things aren’t always going to go your way. But, remember things do get better – it’s cheesy but it’s true. It’s so difficult to remember that – I didn’t in the moment. But looking back, it’s about almost being more selfish. You’re not defeated, you’re exhausted and feel trapped and think you can never be happy – it’s overcrowded in your mind’, she says.
Concluding our conversation, Amy wants to make it clear that happiness is always possible: ‘There are however many different countries, however many different square meters of the world which you could sit in or live in, people you could meet, and you have no idea how they’re going to impact your happiness. The chances are one out of those millions or billions of people or places is going to make you happy. You’re ruling out ever being happy again, but that’s literally impossible.’
Amy’s message seems a simple one, but from someone who’s survived two suicide attempts and gained a newfound gratitude for life, the proof is clearly there: it really can get better.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123
*Some names have been changed for the purposes of this article
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