Last Sunday I broke down in front of two people at church, and told them that I was desperate to die and that I had been on the verge of walking out and going to the spot where, when I had been feeling suicidal before, I had planned to take my own life. They weren’t horrified, or at a loss for words. They took me seriously, but they didn’t panic. They held me, and talked to me, and though the pain was still intense the sobbing died down, and some sort of connection had been made.
Less than a month ago, I signed the STOP Suicide pledge. The pledge is part of a wider suicide-prevention campaign working towards reducing the stigma of talking openly about suicide. It is one of a small number of similar projects across the UK (for example, Grassroots) which, inspired by a very successful suicide-prevention project in Detroit, are trying to reduce the more than 6,000 completed suicides (and many more attempts) that take place every year in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Both STOP Suicide and Grassroots have been launched in particular areas/counties in the UK, but their pledges can be taken by anyone, anywhere.
When a friend of mine first drew my attention to the STOP Suicide pledge, I wasn’t prepared to sign it. I thought the campaign was incredibly important and I had no problem with points two to five of the pledge – reaching out to those who are struggling, listening without judgement, and helping them to get support. But I couldn’t hand-on-heart commit to point one – “tell you if I’m struggling and need help”. I was worried that talking about suicide would be too much of a burden for others; that they wouldn’t know what to say or would feel uncomfortable. That it was unfair of me to put them in a position where they would worry about me and might feel responsible for ‘saving me’. It didn’t occur to me that it might be unfair not to give them the opportunity to try.
I’m not sure exactly how or why I changed my mind about signing the pledge. I think it was part of the very gradual process, encouraged by therapy, of opening up a little about my mental health difficulties. But even just a few weeks ago, I could never have imagined talking in that way to anyone about wanting to kill myself. I am sure that even unconsciously, the pledge was a key part of that change, and I’ve been thinking during the last week about why pledging can be so powerful.
It seems to me, that the STOP Suicide pledge is a lot like the promises I made in marriage. When I got married I became part of something bigger – not just because I was part of a unit of two rather than a unit of one, but also because that unit was publicly recognised. Taking the pledge made me feel part of something bigger than myself – part of a community of hundreds of others who had also promised to reach out and to support. My suicidal thoughts tend to be accompanied by a severe case of tunnel vision, where the only thing I can focus on is my pain. Being aware of a ‘wider picture’ is extremely difficult, but the pledge is a reminder that though it may feel like it, my pain is not the only thing that exists. Possibility and hope are out there too.
Within my marriage, I am also accountable – I am a separate person, but there is someone else to consider in the decisions that I make. Taking the pledge somehow helped me to feel accountable – to the campaign, to those other individuals who have also taken the pledge, and to the people in my own life. Not in a way that felt burdensome or restrictive, but in a gentle way that reminded me that I’m connected, and although I may feel like an island, my actions have ripples and repercussions.
Taking the pledge was a bit like taking on board an anchor that you can throw overboard when you find yourself in a storm. Talking to others did not mean I was yet in safe harbour – it still felt as though I was being buffeted by desperation – but I felt a little safer. The suicidal thoughts were still scary, but I felt a bit more in control; less likely to be swept away by them. Like being in a relationship, I had something to cling to, something to help tie me to firmer ground.
And, as it has become increasingly clear since last weekend, taking the pledge is not just about a single decision, made once, and it’s not just about speaking up or supporting someone in crisis. It’s a promise that requires daily renewal, just as staying married requires a continual commitment to choose to love someone, however easy or difficult that may be. I noticed after the immediate ‘crisis’ had passed, that even though I still felt as though I wanted to die, I felt less willing to continue to reach out. Even though the two people I talked to had given me their phone numbers, I didn’t want to ‘bother them’ any further. But taking the pledge means I need to acknowledge that it’s not just about keeping me (or others) alive, but keeping me well. It’s not just about stopping suicide, it’s about support in a struggle and about starting a discussion – and then keeping that discussion going.
Suicide prevention and reducing stigma should be a national campaign – the various projects around the UK are doing fantastic work but this message needs to be taken up more widely. The more people who become involved, and the more that the impact of these campaigns can be demonstrated, the more likely it is not only that they will continue to be funded, but that other similar projects will also get off the ground.
Taking the STOP Suicide pledge means making a promise, a promise to yourself and to others; and we tend to like keeping our promises. For me, promises matter – even when I feel I don’t. Wherever you are, may I encourage you to think about taking the pledge. It may be the most important promise you ever keep.