The Dark at the End of the Tunnel
As I write, it is World Prevent Suicide Day. I'm afraid this column will be a bit bleak. I also think it's important to note, before I go any further, that if you have, or ever have had, thoughts about self-harming or taking your own life, you should think carefully about reading this piece. I'm not going to discuss how people do either, that would be grossly irresponsible. I am going to talk about what I have learned over the years about dealing with it as a carer. For everyone else it is worth understanding this issue if you can, and I hope I can contribute something to that understanding.
A few years ago I met a man whose wife had a history of self-harm and suicide attempts. One day he went out for the afternoon, leaving her parents to look after her. As he was on his way out, his mother-in-law upbraided him for having sharp knives in the house. He suggested that, while he was away, his in-laws should remove everything in the house with which their daughter could harm herself, and leave it on the lawn from where he would have it collected. A few hours later, when he returned, the lawn was empty. His mother-in-law apologetically conceded that it simply wasn't possible to clear the house of everything with which her daughter could potentially cause herself harm.
My point here is that it isn't possible to prevent someone from harming themselves or taking their life – not in the long term. You can restrain them or hide the knives or lock up the tablets, but if someone has a persistent wish to hurt themselves then it is impossible to prevent them. I'm not saying this to make you feel powerless, although that may well be the effect. What you need you understand is firstly that trying to prevent it would be wasting you efforts and secondly – and most importantly – it isn't your fault. Suicides are ultimately killed by a tragic illness that even professionals have difficulty with. You can't stop them doing what they want, what you may be able to do is stop them from wanting to do it.
At this point I had initially planned to tell you what you can do for your suicidal person. Truth is. I have no idea. I can point you to Things not to say to a depressed person and How to be there for a depressed person, neither of which I had anything to do with. The mental health charity Mind offer good advice on Coping with Suicidal Feelings and Helping someone deal with suicidal feelings. You would be well advised to get as much professional help as you can, if you haven't already done so. This is going to be a difficult and demanding task for both you and the person you care for, whose challenges will be vast. What I can personally suggest to you is to make sure you look after yourself. Coping with someone else's suicidal depression can be mentally and physically exhausting. I knew a carer who supported their spouse through three increasingly traumatic suicide attempts before deciding that they had to move out, albeit only next door. It's a very difficult step to take, walking away from the person you care for, but it may be worth taking some time to consider how far you are prepared to go and how much you can cope with. After that, you need to focus on how you can support yourself. Get plenty of rest, eat properly, make time for yourself. Treat yourself, I would suggest, as if you were suffering from a bug of some kind. Take time out if you possibly can. Keep yourself well
Severe Depression can, to my mind, be rather like Dementia, in that it has the capacity to hollow out the person you love, and leave an empty shell in need of care. It's not always that bad, of course, but it can diminish the person to an extent that it makes remembering why you are caring for them a challenge. You need to retain the knowledge of why you value a person who is now a shadow of who they once were. So here's what you do: dredge your memory, your photo albums, your diary if you have one. Write down everything that you can remember that made you value the person you are trying to keep alive. In their present state of mind they may well not be very receptive to praise or hearing good things about themselves, but I am certain you'll need them.
So you can't fix depression, and you can't make it go away. What you have to do is decide how many emotional plates you can keep in the air at a time and when, if ever, to give up. You need to get as much help as you can, you need to try and work out the best way to keep the plates spinning and you need to make sure you look after yourself as much as possible. Good luck and don't let yourself be alone. Please, if you wish, drop in to Carers of H2G2.