By: Cindy Monica Agbeme (MJA, Ghana)
A little background story: The author of this book, Ned Vizzini, wrote this novel in 2006 after his 5-day stay at a mental health facility in November 2004. The story although a well-acclaimed fiction, is based on his real-life experiences and struggles through severe clinical depression. The author died on December 19, 2013, from suicide aged 32.
The excerpt above was the introduction to a review I wrote of a book I read in 2018. The title is “It’s kind of a funny story” authored by Ned Vizzini and I remember starting the review with the fact that it was the most important book I had read that year. There are so many reasons I still remember that book, not least being the shock I had when I only found out after reading that the author had died from suicide when he had beautifully written a story of courage, hope and redemption.
Did you know that globally, 800,000 deaths occur annually as a result of suicide? (WHO, 2019). Did you also know that according to the Mental Health Association (MHA), Ghana records about 1,500 suicide cases yearly and for each reported case of suicide, there are 4 unreported cases which brings that figure to nearly 6000? For every suicide, approximately 135 people suffer grief and are remotely affected because every life lost represents someone’s sibling, parent, partner, child, friend, colleague or even neighbor. These figures are staggering for such a preventable occurrence.
A simple dictionary definition says suicide is intentionally ending one’s own life but we can all agree that there is nothing simple about suicide. According to the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), genetic, psychological, social and cultural factors alongside experiences of trauma and loss all lead to suicide. The road to suicide is definitely not a one-size-fits-all so whichever approach adopted for suicide prevention should also be multilevel and a collection of diversified efforts. Also, a lot of the approach seems to be embedded in theories and ideas and not enough practicality and so what this article seeks to achieve is to take a possible real life situation and show how a desolate life in desperate need for help can be saved.
THE TAKE 5 CAMPAIGN
Below is a 5-step approach to suicide prevention, and it is called the 'Take 5' campaign. Each step is tackled based on examples of situations we face as individuals every day.
Case study: John is a middle-aged schoolteacher who lives an average life with his wife and two kids. He has several friends who double as colleagues and they all usually hang out at a popular bar during the weekends. This has gone on for the past 3 years or so. Lately, John doesn’t show up for the hangouts. He feels very tired and drained physically and emotionally but he cannot explain this since his daily routine has not changed in the last five years. John can’t afford vacations so he takes on private tutoring during his leave period from work. His friends start questioning him and he gives one excuse or the other. His wife notices that he is more withdrawn and usually talks about how his life as a schoolteacher is the best he can do.
She tried to talk to him once about it and he exploded and walked out. She also notices that he can’t sleep properly at night and is anxious about almost everything. She is sure there is something wrong but decides not to broach the subject for fear that he might get angry again. His children now notice a stranger from the jovial and fun-loving man they call dad. His colleagues at school also try to stay on his good side and are scared to ask him exactly what the problem is. Majority of them avoid him altogether. About three months later, John is found dead, hanging from the ceiling in his garage.
1. LEARN THE SIGNS
Being able to identify signs of suicidal tendencies is a great way to prepare one to act and help save a life. For some people, it might not be so obvious as in the case of John, but it is very common for people going through extreme emotional crises to exhibit one or more warning signs of suicide. In this instance, his withdrawal from normal activities, friends and family, hopelessness, rage and dramatic mood changes can be identified. Other signs to watch out for include acting reckless or engaging in risky behavior, increased alcohol or drug use and feelings of being trapped.
2. KNOW HOW TO HELP
Most times, people are scared to even mention suicide in conversations with friends and this has made it more difficult to talk about. Looking back at the case study, John’s wife and colleagues were afraid to ask him the right questions at the right time. His wife was scared to ask him if he was having suicidal thoughts. His colleagues likewise. Being direct and asking questions about suicide makes victims open up more. Listening without judgement and responding with kind words go a long way in helping victims find a reason to live. Opening statements like “I’m worried about you, are you OK?” Or “I know you and something is going on, let’s talk about it” are great ways to start conversations.
3. PRACTICE SELF-CARE
Often, we focus on physical well-being but forget that mental wellness is equally crucial to our overall long-term health. John was overworked and hardly took any breaks. Addressing emotional pain like loss of a job or loved ones can contribute to good mental health. Making time for family, eating healthy, getting enough sleep and exercise and effectively managing stress and other physical and medical conditions are all steps in the right direction. Most importantly, seeking help when one is overwhelmed is a great way to reduce any form of burden.
4. REACH OUT
Human problems are infinite, and we mostly think we are alone in our struggles but seeking help lets us know that we are not alone, and we can overcome our problems just as other people have. John could have confided in a close friend, religious leader or family member. He could have sought professional help by speaking to a therapist. In Ghana, suicide helplines are fast gaining ground and one common organization is www.suicide.org who help individuals contemplating suicide.
5. SPREAD THE WORD
Talking about suicide should not be a taboo. If by today, you tell at least 5 people about Take 5 and World Suicide Prevention Day, you would have done a lot more in saving people like John.
We can safely say that Ned Vizzini was a subject matter expert to an extent because he had been well recognized for his approach to discussing depression and anxiety while staying within the boundaries of comic and fiction. He was successful at his writing career and he seemed to have a hold on his mental health and how to navigate through it, or at least his art suggested so.
That he still died through this canker at the peak of his career suggests readily that suicide prevention is a collective task of society. The parents we come home to, the friends we have, the nature of education and policies on mental health all have a profound impact on how we respond to depressing situations.
The story of Ned highlights the fact that knowing that we are going through an emotional turmoil is not enough to overcome it. We need those around us to help us sail through to the end without compromising on patience and heightening tension.
In his case, could it be that someone close to him did not look out for signs and ask the right questions? Could it be that there was not an avenue for him to properly express his "unconventional” melancholy? Could it be a combination of all these? These unknowns remain unanswered.
One thing we know for certain, however, is that the world has lost many greats through suicide and all those lives could have possibly been spared if someone had taken a bold step and approached the situation more prepared and along clear deliberate lines on suicide prevention.
For those of us who are left behind, I have a question to ask. Are you going to be quiet about that close relative or friend who matters or are you going to take that heroic and intentional step to hear them out and help save them today? The ball is in your court.
1. Suicide. (2019, September 2). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide
2. Take 5 steps. Retrieved from https://www.take5tosavelives.org/take-5-steps
3. World Suicide Prevention Brochure (2020). Retrieved from https://www.iasp.info/wspd2020/wspd-brochure/