In recent days, I’ve been given cause to reflect on the potentially devastating consequences of mental illness in teenagers and young adults – more specifically on the consequences of young people not receiving the help they need when they need it.
Suicide is always a tragedy, heart-breaking, painful, but when it’s a young person who takes their own life, for me there is an added dimension to the sadness – the tragedy of a young life wasted, of potential unexplored and unfulfilled, of experiences not yet lived – and of parents and families devastated by the loss of a child or sibling. For those who have never seen the effects of mental illness, there is an incomprehensibility about it – a dichotomy between that image of the carefree joy of youth and the sudden, shocking ending of a young life. For a young person struggling day-to-day with the effects of a mental health problem, their reality can feel utterly without hope.
Shockingly, suicide is the leading cause of death in young adults, and 80% of those who take their own life are male. With boys already finding it harder than girls to talk about emotions and feelings, and cultural expectations that boys don’t cry, that they should be strong, that they should ‘man up’, it is no wonder that it is young men who are most at risk.
Feeling suicidal is often a temporary state of mind. If help and emotional support is offered, in the right way at the right time, to people who are experiencing deep unhappiness and distress, this can reduce the risk of them choosing to end their own life. Yet, three-quarters of people who do so are not in contact with mental health services at the time of the death.
This is an additional tragedy in itself – knowing that with the right help and support, suicide is often preventable – young lives are wasted needlessly because often they do not receive that help.
At The Project, we provide a safe space for young people to talk about their issues, and to help reduce the sense of isolation which often goes hand in hand with mental illness. Our young people, and specifically in this case, the young men who attend, tell us that having that space makes a huge difference to their lives.
It’s improved my self-esteem and it’s been extremely helpful talking to people in a comforting environment
Fear of what people will say, of being laughed at or not taken seriously can stop young people reaching out and seeking help. Societal attitudes to mental illness, and a general fear and ignorance around the issues, leads to the stigmatisation of young people who may be struggling – from their peers, family members, colleagues, health professionals; in schools and in the workplace. This fear of other people’s reactions is often what stops young people reaching out, to them struggling to manage unmanageable feelings alone – and ultimately and tragically, in some cases, to suicide.
Yet young people who survive a suicide attempt say that it’s not that they actually want to die, but rather that they can no longer bear living with the emotional pain they are feeling – and can see no other way to escape the torment of their own minds. They look ahead and can see no end to the blackness, no hope of improvement, no light at the end of the tunnel.
And this has brought me back to where I started.
In recent weeks I have heard the stories of three local young lads who have taken their own lives – one age 15, one age 18 and one age 22. Three young lives wasted needlessly, because they were failed not just by the system, but by society as a whole, which simply by its attitudes, ignorance and lack of awareness made it too difficult for these young people to reach out for help, and left them with nowhere else to go.
It is all too easy to pass the blame to doctors, health services, schools, parents and families – to make it someone else’s fault. But in reality, we all have a part to play; we all have a responsibility – after all, we can all (every single one of us!) listen, we can all look at our own attitudes and opinions around suicide. Consider what your response is when you hear a report about suicide – what are your first thoughts? That they must have come from a dodgy background, been on drugs, a bit of a loser, selfish, or weak in some way?
Now consider this! Mental illness can affect anyone at any time, regardless of age, what you do, where you live, how much money you have, how successful you are, your sexuality, your colour, race, class or religion. Mental illness does not discriminate – and it most definitely is not a sign of weakness.
And it is up to every single one of us to open our eyes, to better understand mental health issues, to arm ourselves with the facts, not perpetuate the myths! Only then will we have created a society where it is safe for those young people who are struggling to speak out, free from shame, fear and judgement.
It’s certainly enabled me to be able to talk about my problems and improve my relationships with friends and family
My daughter took an overdose at 16, shortly after being discharged from an adolescent psychiatric unit where she had spent 5 months dealing with issues around depression, anxiety, self-harm and an eating disorder. Through The Project, I have since met many other young people who have attempted suicide – they are some of the most courageous, determined and generous-hearted young people I have ever had the privilege of meeting. I would love everyone to meet them, as they would challenge every prejudice, every myth, every stereotype that is out there!
I know how close I came to losing my daughter, and every time I hear about a young person taking their own life, I am so grateful that our story ended differently. It also reminds me of the importance of the work we do at The Project, and inspires me to keep pushing for change, to raise awareness and challenge attitudes. If this saves just one young life, then it will all have been worth it.
Our Youth Mental Health First Aid training can help those working with young people to have a better understanding of how to support those who are struggling, including looking at the sensitive issues around teenage suicide.