The letter was written before she committed suicide. In it she was resigned, angry, tired. Tired of fighting, tired of looking for help, tired of finding help only to see her trust betrayed. “Confidentiality” was a word that came up repeatedly. It seemed she couldn’t find much of it in “dog-eat-dog” Guyana.
Yet there was a chink of hope in there, that things might change after she was no longer here. Use my death as an impetus for change, she pleaded.
Extracts from the letter were read at the Guyana Equality Forum‘s observation of World Suicide Prevention Day. Arriving at Herdmanston Lodge I wondered why I was there. Was this going to be another talk shop? A photo op – with brunch? I chose not to take any food and see if something else would nourish me. I didn’t have much hope.
Unexpectedly I left with a three-course meal of thoughts. The appetiser was a speech by the acting British High Commissioner Ray Davidson who busted three myths: firstly that someone who commits suicide has a mental-health disorder (it could be financial troubles, health issues, domestic violence… to name just three). Secondly that people who commit suicide want to die. “They just don’t want to live the life they have,” he explained. And thirdly, that talking about suicide encourages people to take their own life. While ‘suicidal ideation’ does exist, it’s better that someone is able to say they’re feeling suicidal and hopefully talk through some alternative options.
The main course was the letter read by SASOD’s managing director Joel Simpson, written by his former colleague Zenita Nicholson, who sadly took her own life in 2015. There was something a little unsettling at first about hearing the words of someone from beyond the grave, but then I realised it was an amazing privilege and these were words she had poured her heart into and wanted to be heard. It was sad to listen to someone who was clearly so passionate, and had tried so hard, admit defeat. “The system has failed me”, she said.
Dessert came with the deceptively simple ‘Tell me’ pledge read by Colin Klautky of the Guyanese Organization of Indigenous Peoples:
I pledge that I will:
…tell someone if I’m struggling and need help;
…reach out and tell you if I’m worried about you;
…listen to you, without judgment if you need someone to talk to;
…ask you, directly, if I think you’re trying to tell me about suicide;
…help you get support if you’re struggling and/or thinking about suicide.
I thought of the times that I haven’t reached out for help when I’ve needed it – worried that people would be too busy or think my worries insignificant. When I’ve thought a friend seemed different but haven’t asked straight out: Is everything ok? When I’ve tried to offer advice instead of just listening. When I’ve shied away from mentioning suicide to someone I thought might be in deep. When I’ve not known who to turn to to get help, or have hoped they’d just get better.
A while back, Vidyaratha Kissoon, Keshav Joshi and I kickstarted a Facebook note entitled Some Mental Health resources in Guyana, asking people to share any resources, services and organisations they are aware of. Slowly the list is growing but it needs more input and shares to ensure it gets to those who need it.
It’s ambitious to hope that everyone who needs help in Guyana will be able to find what they’re looking for. You don’t always click with your first therapist (or second, or third…). Certain anti-depressants just won’t work for you. You may benefit more from CBT or art therapy than psychoanalysis. Even when all the resources are at your fingertips, it takes time, patience and, essentially, trial and error to come up with a combination that helps keep the black dog at bay.
I thought back to a recent training session in which the trainer frankly admitted that suggesting young victims of abuse go to the police or through the courts isn’t necessarily the best advice. They could face more abuse, be made to feel stupid or insignificant, be humiliated. Let’s face it, there’s vast room for improvement in the judicial system at all levels. What was more important was giving them agency.
Instead of talking simply about who they could go to, it was about asking them: who do you know who could help you? And really help you, not by pointing you to an NGO or government department but standing up and warning off the abuser? It was about encouraging them to trust their instincts, knowing when something just felt ‘wrong’. It was about them finding a way to stay out of danger – not because they were guilty or complicit but because it would help keep them safe.
Helping someone who is considering suicide is not all that different. Pointing someone to a trained mental health professional is ideal, but as provision (and trust) is low in Guyana we can’t rely on this alone. Instead we should also ask: who can you really talk to, and know they will not betray your trust? What does your gut say about the drugs you are on or the counselling you’re in? Is it really helping or might a different combination of medicine or a different type of therapy work better? And finally what are the danger signs for you when it comes to mental wellbeing? What triggers your depression, spiralling negative thoughts or suicidal ideas? And how can you try and avoid them?
And we should actually listen to the answer. Let that person come up with their own tentative solutions, and feel a sense of empowerment – a word I never truly understood and appreciated until that workshop. Maybe they won’t be able to come up with the answer, but at least they’ll feel they’ve been listened to. And relieved that you didn’t tell them to cheer up. That you didn’t tell them things would get better and that they need to stop feeling bad. That you didn’t refuse to listen to them talk about suicide when they so desperately needed to get it off their chest.
In this beautiful article for The Guardian, one husband shared what happened when he actually let his wife discuss her suicidal thoughts – without trying to stop her. I also recently came across this thought-provoking video (see below) about how to help a friend in grief, which reminds us it’s also ok to not be ok, whether you’re grieving someone, a relationship, a perceived failure, whatever it may be. The video also highlights the importance of just being there for someone and that sometimes you don’t have to have the right words. Silence is enough.
When money is tight, resources are scarce, and psychiatrist couches are not exactly plentiful, thank goodness listening is free.