Belfast Telegraph

Questions may remain but suicide is not the answer

By Phillip Hodson

Although suicide is no longer a crime, it remains a puzzle utterly disturbing to those left behind. Never more so than when the end arrives without warning, as was the case with Welsh football legend Gary Speed.

"He was as bubbly as I've known him", said the BBC1 presenter Dan Walker, who had interviewed Speed the previous day. "He was talking about his kids, how they were really coming on.

"It's awful to think someone who was so gifted with the rest of his life to look forward to has been so cruelly removed."

Logic suggests that people who behave like this are either subject to catastrophic mood swings, or have the ability of long-term sleeper spies to lead a double life.

If the former, you'd expect there to be some sort of advance indication of turmoil. If the latter, you'd want a posthumous explanation. Alas, there are often neither.

Our current thinking about the mind remains alarmingly simple. In this era of all-conquering neuroscience, we point to a bit of the brain that appears to be scan-connected to another and think we can explain it. The world of cognitive therapy has little time for the "hidden self". But what if the mind is not its conscious contents?

How else to understand the idea of "masked depression" in a teenager who is the life and soul of the family party while secretly self-harming? Or the sportsman who is jolly on the box at noon and loses his life by nightfall?

My own experience of talking to people in distress is that they tell others only a proportion of what bothers them while being simultaneously unaware of all that bothers them. We should recall that it's difficult to know a mind that does not know itself.

This is relevant when it comes to depression in men. Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under the age of 35.

Although we know that preponderant factors include matters that society might mitigate - such as poverty and untended mental illness in the community - there remains the problem of failed expectations of the self.

While, on the surface, a man may appear to be a worldly success, beneath this carapace of certainty he may feel like a loser. He could encounter all the problems he's been avoiding since some major emotional crisis in the past.

More than likely, he mistakenly feels unable to share any of these difficulties with his family. At this point, the drastic options may become more beguiling.

In one respect, male depression seems inherently different from female. Broadly speaking, if you ask a woman if she's depressed she will probably tell you - most men will say they're fine.

Perhaps this is why women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, but men are three times more likely to kill themselves. I suggest that if the national depression statistics for men included the consequences of excessive stress, drinking and drug-abuse as well as male workaholism and road-rage they might be better balanced.

Of course, anyone may have to stop being depressed for a moment to find the energy to commit such an 'aggressive' act as suicide - but it would torture language to say it's a sign of a balanced mind to kill yourself while loved, in good health with a young family.

For surviving relatives, there will be complications of grief. Worse still, if it's in public, you lose even the defence of privacy.

Guilt and anger compete. But these are the facts. You had no warning. You did nothing proportionate to cause the death (even if there had been angry words). You couldn't stop it on the day.

It made sense - for a moment - to the person you lost. They were fallible. And they got it wrong.

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