Swinging on a Star by Barbara Nadel

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For all sorts of reasons, today is not a good day. This is nothing to do with my already well-publicised depression, this is just life. No point going in to it all. But if you can picture Rupert Murdoch’s face when he’s happy, you’ll get a little of the measure of how this misery is making me look right now. Pretty it is not. If I had some rope and some sort of gallows I’d probably have a go at hanging myself. Even simpler than that, I could find everything I would ever want to know about hanging myself on the Internet with just a couple of clicks of my mouse button. Fortunately my disapproval of such sites is so intense, not even the promise of blessed oblivion would make me even begin to look for such things. And of course, there is also the knowledge that this feeling I have, however ghastly, will pass. By this evening, I could be dancing the Cancan in the street (or not). My point is, that although some people are plagued by thoughts of self destruction, for most of us, suicidal thoughts pass.

When I used to work in psychiatric hospitals and special units, we had our fair share of suicides and suicide attempts. Even if people are not mentally ill, when they are locked away in any sort of institution the chances of their harming themselves increase. Human beings do not take well to incarceration be it physical or mental. Frustration and hopelessness can drive people to all sorts of extremes, suicide being just one of many.

Most of the time, people do not act on such feelings. And even when they do they often, almost immediately, regret it. The ‘oblivian gate’ out of a certain situation is never the right route and people who try this generally end up just making a frightening dash to a general hospital. That said, sometimes, of course, people succeed. Those left behind, wonder why they did it and agonise about what they might have been able to do to prevent it.

One phenomenon that is common knowledge in psychiatric hospitals is the very dangerous time that occurs when a deeply depressed patient is beginning to recover. The person is far from well but possesses just enough strength and motivation to be able to take their own life. One case that I am still haunted by now involved a woman who seemed to be doing really very well. So well was she in fact that she was allowed to go out of the hospital for a few hours with a nurse. The nurse drove her to a local shopping centre and parked up in a multi-storey car park. The patient got out of the car, and, as the nurse was locking the vehicle, she made a break for it and threw herself over the barrier and into the street below. I was actually on my way home from work when this happened and so, like hundreds of other people that day, I was delayed by the police cars and ambulances that came to attend the scene. I found out what had happened later on that evening.

Then, as now, I wondered whether, had she taken just a moment to think about what she was doing, that patient would have killed herself. Her situation was not good, she was very ill indeed. But she was getting better, she did have people in her life (including a son) and she was an engaging and intelligent person. But in that moment she just couldn’t take any more. I lay no blame on her at all here. But I do still think about what she would have felt like in the following moment, had she taken it. I may be wrong but I think she may well have changed her mind.

This story is an account of a suicide that happened without outside assistance or encouragement. One of the least edifying sides to the Internet is that which actively encourages people to take their own lives. In the UK the law states that to assist a suicide is a criminal offence. There are no exceptions. You may have a relative who is terminally ill, in pain and begging to die, but if you help that person you will be arrested by the police. And yet, at the same time, complete strangers can instruct a person on the mechanics of how to kill themselves and then encourage and even chivvy them to do so on line.

Far be it from me to advocate censorship in any form. It is anathema to me. But the suicide as well as the pro anorexia sites that now proliferate, do make you think. If someone encourages another person in the UK to kill themselves, even if they are 3,000 miles away in who knows where, is that not still an offence? If we arrest those who kill out of compassion and love, why are we not arresting those who kill by proxy for kicks? I don’t know and I have no answers to these questions but it is a debate I think that we as a society, as well as our lawmakers, should be having. If a vulnerable person is persuaded to take his or her own life by someone with capacity and with ill intent, is this not murder?

My day has not improved but, as I predicted, I have put the mental gallows and rope away yet again. Nothing, however dark, is ever worth that.

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