Guest blog for World Suicide Prevention Day by Martin Short, DI Head of Wellbeing, Diversity and Inclusion
Although it has a happy ending, the following account describes a suicide attempt by a young person and my personal reflections on the mental health aftermath of this incident on a variety of people. If you feel that the nature of this content is likely to be distressing for you then you are advised not to read further.
One Saturday evening in early 2020, my 15 year old son took a car tow rope, fixed one end to a rafter in my ex-wife’s garage, climbed onto a workbench, put the noose he had made in the other end around his neck and stepped off the bench. A short time after, as I was cleaning my house, I got a call from my eldest son telling me that his brother had tried to hang himself and I needed to come quickly. Fully expecting to be on the receiving end of a bad taste joke by two teenagers I didn’t rush. I put the vacuum cleaner away, found my coat and shoes and walked out of my front door towards the garage which was about 500 metres away. After 30 seconds or so I saw the flashing blue lights and only then did I start running.
When I got to the garage my youngest son was lying unconscious on his back on the concrete floor of the garage with two paramedics attending him. My eldest son was holding a torch above them so that they could see what they were doing. I knelt on the floor and started talking into my son’s ear and squeezing his hand to try to get a response while the paramedics worked on him. In the background I was vaguely aware of more ambulances and the police arriving – but my son was starting to convulse violently and so my eldest and I were more focused on holding him steady so the paramedics could work on him.
After what seemed like hours they got the various lines in, stabilised his neck, put an oxygen mask on him and got him onto a stretcher. Just as we were manoeuvring him out of the garage he vomited and this triggered a frenzy of activity to get his mask off and clear his airway. By this time the air ambulance paramedics had arrived too. Eventually we got him into the ambulance and my eldest and I followed behind in a police car. As we travelled at 90mph down a 30mph suburban street I can only remember the whole experience feeling completely surreal.
For the next two weeks it felt like life took place inside a bubble containing the hospital and snatched periods at home to wash and grab some food and sleep. My son was kept in an induced coma as he went through multiple scans, had a probe placed in his brain and received treatment for a collapsed lung. As he was under 16 he was placed in the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) which added to the sense of unreality for us as we sat by the bed of a six foot tall teenager surrounded by tiny babies. I read to him every day hoping it would register with him at some level – but in truth it probably helped me more as it gave me some small feeling of purpose. Despite the bleak early days in hospital, the scans suggested that there was no visible neck or brain damage and I found myself clinging onto research that I found online that suggested that outcomes were generally more positive for those whose hearts had not stopped beating during a hanging attempt. After a week of shifts by his bedside with my eldest son and ex-wife, I walked into intensive care early one morning to take over. Just as I started talking to him, he opened his eyes for the first time and asked where he was. Thinking about that moment and the multitude of emotions that it kicked off can still make me tear up.
I felt that I managed the incident and the immediate aftermath quite well as I dealt with the police, physiotherapists, social workers and the mental health services – but within a month or so the impact on my mental health became apparent. Looking back on it now I think my Mental Health First Aid training helped me recognise very quickly that something was wrong. The multitude of discussions that I have had over the past five years on mental health have also made me quite comfortable talking about my own and this gave me the confidence to seek help without feeling the slightest shame or embarrassment. As part of my wellbeing routine I keep a gratitude diary and one of the entries from around that time reads, ‘I am grateful for recognising that I am depressed and that I need to get that sorted’.
Depression for me was not about feeling low or sad, it was simply a sense of being completely emotionally empty – as if my very capacity to feel anything had just evaporated and left a joyless, hollow shell behind. I knew I had exceeded my capacity to cope, I knew I was mentally unwell and I knew I needed help. I went to my GP who explained that the stress of dealing with the event had probably led to depleted levels of serotonin in my body and that this was most likely driving my depression. He helped me access the local mental health services, I took the support offered and within six months I felt normal again.
My son did not die and I acknowledge that with gratitude every day. My eldest needed some professional support but has bounced back really well, while my youngest has learned how to look after his mind better, learned to ask for help and pretty much moved on. Nowadays we can even find some dark humour in the episode – which I hope is an encouraging sign. I now find myself in a position where I am able to reflect on some of the things that I learned from the experience.
I know now that the ripples of damage spread wide when someone attempts suicide. Perhaps some of those who feel driven to do so think that they can just slip away unnoticed and unmourned, while others believe that those they leave behind will be better off without them. The reality for us could not have been more different – the impact was not just on family but on friends, classmates, teachers, and those from the Emergency Services. These included the two police liaison officers who were so upset they were unable to stop crying. It also included the intensive care nurses, and the paramedic who was first on the scene and who had a son of a similar age and appearance to mine. I can still remember his drained white face and the profound state of shock he was in on our arrival at the hospital as he described how he had visualised his own son hanging there as he cut mine down while my eldest held his body up.
The other big lesson for me was that none of us saw any warning signs – not me, not his mother, not his brother, not his friends and not his teachers. My son had good friends (who all rallied around him after the incident and who have been brilliant), he was popular with his teachers, socially outgoing and physically fit – but something was not right in his mind and he shared that with no one. I felt guilty about this and for a long time I racked my brains trying to recall the warning signs that I felt I had missed. There was also something akin to survivors’ guilt – a feeling that we had got our child back when so many are not that lucky.
Surprisingly perhaps, I now feel that the entire experience has had positive outcomes. Both sons are doing well and my youngest recognises the void that will be created in the world without him. We have all learned to talk about feelings much more readily and to regularly check in with each other. I would never say that I would ever want to repeat the experience but I do feel that taking mental health seriously has helped us through and enabled us all to come out of a traumatic experience in a better state than we went in.
I certainly feel that my investment in mental health awareness training and the confidence I have in being able to talk about my own mental health made a difference to me. While those skills didn’t stop me becoming mentally unwell, they certainly helped me recognise that something was wrong and to acknowledge that I needed to ask for help.
Samaritans - https://www.samaritans.org/
National Suicide Prevention Alliance - https://nspa.org.uk/
The Charlie Waller Trust - https://charliewaller.org/
The Louise Tebboth Foundation - http://www.louisetebboth.org.uk/
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) - https://www.thecalmzone.net/
PAPYRUS - https://www.papyrus-uk.org/
Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide - https://uksobs.org/
WHO: suicide prevention - https://www.who.int/health-topics/suicide#tab=tab_1
SOM links and resources: