This is post taken from David Gilbert’s website (with permission). David has 30 years experience in mental health user advocacy/patient engagement. You can find out more about his work at Future Patient Blog and In Health Associates. All of his work is about how user and patients are natural leaders in the health system. David is a leading thinker and doer in the field of patient and public engagement and is a respected strategist, facilitator, researcher, trainer, writer, connector and communicator. He has worked with over a hundred local, national and international organisations to help develop effective ways that patients can be true partners in health and healthcare.
Another teen kills herself at 18 years old. The media is lit up with quotes from loved ones and friends about how ‘talented’ she was at her chosen sport, with so much to live for, how ‘cheerful’ she had been, even days previously, and how ‘beautiful’ she was. The media echo how shocked everyone is. How could someone with ‘everything to live for’ want to die?
Who knows what happened. I have my own theories, as we all may do if we dwell. It is lacking in respect to speculate too much, to intrude on bewilderment and total grief. As a parent, it would be unbearable.
But here is what I do know.
At 18, I was talented and seemingly cheerful. Friendly, caring, sensitive… more words that meant that those who knew me would have been shocked that I was treading on thin ice. That I may have been intellectually capable and apparently calm, but underneath I was fragile.
It was at that age roughly that I hit my head on a wall when a girl refused to go out with me. It was a year later when I couldn’t sleep with worry about my university essay. Another year later, and I was having daily anxiety attacks about the work I was doing.
And at 25, much to the ‘shock’ and ‘bewilderment’ of my loved ones, I had a massive nervous breakdown and was unable to cope with life or my mind for another six years.
I have written a fair amount on that time. But there are one or two main points that I think are worth considering here.
Firstly, it should come as little surprise that someone who is outwardly cheerful, should be suffering. What is more surprising is that we don’t learn. Time and time again, loved ones and friends (and the media) grip to their awkward beliefs that this ‘should not have happened’, that they have somehow been duped, and that outward appearance mirrors what lies below. How dumb are we, societally, not to learn?
Secondly, people tend not to be curious about the pressures that must have surrounded someone who kills themselves. People are wary of looking under the rock – at the reality that those who kill themselves often may be driven perfectionists, incapable of living with their own faults.
I vomited with anxiety most Saturday nights before swimming galas when in my early teens. The signs were there. I did not know how to deal with fractures in my self-worth and felt I could not be anything other than perfect. At 56, I still live with that unfortunate legacy. It is not about blaming families or loved ones – my parents did all they can, and had their share of pressures themselves.
It is more about finding ways to check in, finding ways of assuring kids that they are loved and worthwhile even if they fail sometimes. That, as humans, we are enough. Societally, we are so far from being able to do this, it almost unbearable to witness these days. And, during such volatile times, being ‘good enough’, cultivating character rather than personality seems so old-fashioned as to be almost ridiculous. Almost.
Thirdly, it is not enough to put at the bottom of an article, akin to the small print in a contract, ‘go seek support’. It is patently inadequate merely to urge people to ‘talk’. It seems particularly contradictory when pinned as an afterthought to an article on the cheeriness of the person who has killed themselves! The whole thrust of articles on ‘young’ ‘talented’ ‘cheery’ ‘good looking’ who have killed themselves is to convey this sense of denial and a ‘how could they’ tone that drives curiosity away.
A little note urging people to talk is a sticking plaster. This is almost irresponsible journalism – insidious and hypocritical.
Fourthly: As a teen, I would not have been able to talk, to articulate what I was going through. In the bubble of my sense of perfectibility, I did not have the language or self-knowledge to express what I was feeling. I would not have been able to admit to doubt, without a huge wrench opening up in my world. A crack that would turn into an abyss. If you had asked me how I was, I would have said ‘fine’. And would not have been ‘lying’. Life (and not feeling well) is not as simple as the ‘let’s talk’ brigadistas suggest.
So, what helps? I am not sure, but I know the rest of my life and career will be spent trying to find out how to help. I guess the first thing – maybe the only thing I know at the moment – is that if you know any youngster who is cheerful, talented and, yes, even beautiful, don’t wait to reassure them that they are loved for who they are, not who they are outwardly or will be in the future.
I really don’t have answers, but I know better questions. They do not revolve around ‘how come someone so cheerful kill herself?’ It is about asking ‘what can I and we do to make sure kids feel OK about themselves?’. Somewhere in that morass, lie some better answers…
© 2018 David Gilbert
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