When suicide touches us…the personal and the professional

In October, Public Health England produced its national guidance and I was privileged to be quoted in it. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/suicide-prevention-developing-a-local-action-plan . The personal and the professional intermingled in what I said.

Tomorrow (November 9th) we will be hosting our local suicide prevention summit in Hertfordshire. Over 80 people will convene, from a range of backgrounds and concerns, to discuss and shape our future work on reducing suicides locally.

People who have been bereaved, people who have survived attempts at suicide, clinicians, agencies with concerns from transport to NHS and elected members will come together for what will prove an intense and important morning.  I will stay for as long as I can before then going to present papers to our Cabinet.

I have in mind right now the inspiration of our Cabinet Member, and my colleagues who have organized and are leading this. Their leadership is writ large throughout this. For me this is an area where elected member drive, public health technical skills and community leaders like the folk behind Hector’s House, Ollie Foundation, SOBS and the MindEd Trust can come together despite austerity to look at the possible.

Since that guidance was published I’ve had a few colleagues in other areas say how they find this area challenging because of previous experiences in their lives. I can relate to that. I find this time of year emotional and this subject bittersweet to the memory. But I think that can be a good and energizing thing. For me, I can’t separate the personal and the professional in this. Though that does mean I need to be very conscious that my experience is not that of others, nor is it privileged or special. It’s just mine.

Suicide prevention for me is personal as well as professional. I’m not going to begin to try to get away from that. I find that this orients me in this whole process. It also helpfully reminds me that I’m not special, and am here to try to serve. Doing that in a world with no money is going to be interesting but I am going to try. We have nothing to fear from allowing the personal to inform, elucidate, energise and challenge the professional.

I sit here with the enduring memory of those in my life I have lost and, thank God, those I have not lost despite attempts, to suicide.

A best friend since I was young (I wrote about him in my quote in the PHE guidance) for starters. Then another great friend, D at whose bedside I, his partner and family spent too long watching him die in discomfort and pain. He was a man talented and infuriating in equal measures. who made an attempt to take his life – no we never did work out whether he really was serious and neither did the Coroner – changed his mind, seemingly recovered and then later just collapsed. He’d made a kind of half-hearted attempt at cutting into his veins. Being him he’d used a very small mother of pearl handled fruit knife.

By the time he collapsed the organ and system damage done by what seems a simple over the counter drug rendered it too late for any of us to save him. We could only hold, weep and watch in powerless frustration. It all felt clumsy. I felt clumsy. Even his funeral – at which I officiated at his request – I felt I didn’t get right. He and his parents wanted us all to clash and be garish. So I found a YELLOW shirt, a PURPLE tie and put the two together. Great. The shop assistant must have though we’d taken leave of any sense of taste. Unfortunately the suit I wore, not quite thinking, turned the whole lot into something muted and nearly not dreadful. (It was 1998, come on!)

Even the F…ing crematorium played the wrong piece of music at the wrong time despite three practices, and when I pressed the button for the lights to go down, the curtains to come round and me to read the committal, naff all happened. And then when we scattered his ashes his partner dropped the urn. On my foot.

D’s mother said after the funeral that she felt very proud afterwards of saying “bum” in a church during her elegy. I was too busy trying to get C, one of D’s mates to get through his poem without choking in tears at the time to notice and realizing someone had nicked the matches I had placed very carefully for the candle lighting in memory. So I even missed that. Then one day I realized D would have found this all absolutely hilarious. And I laughed through my tears.

A third friend, A, got into drugs and couldn’t cope. He’s now got a degree and is a social worker.  Another, S, just couldn’t handle what was going on for the people he loved. A long night with charcoal drinks and vomit bowls in a tatty corridor in a hospital in Southern England followed after I found him and took him to A and E.  Thankfully, he’s now sorted and thriving. Don’t think he ever forgave me for joining forces with the nurses though.

Unsurprisingly, as I get to doing my introduction to this event, tomorrow, a range of things are going through my mind.

November is always a time of emotion for me. November for Catholics is the month when we remember, grieve for and celebrate our dead. For starters we write a great long list of folk we’ve lost and remember them before God every day of the month. Among other customs which must look odd to the rest of the universe. For Catholics All Saints Day is immediately followed by All Souls day. The community of faith consists of the living and the dead, and they are all to be cherished.  There was a time when I found this tradition silly, awkward, embarrassing. I now realize just how valuable it is because it reminds me of those who shaped me for who I am.

Last week I took part in the launch of a website called the Art of Dying Well, a conversation and tool to help those at the end of life and those who love them. I’m one of the stories on the site (my brush with death and what it has given my life. I’m the only person on the site who swears while telling their story. D’s mum would be proud!)

This week I’m at a suicide prevention event. Two weeks from now we will hurtle into World AIDS Day and the AIDS memorial quilt will be at the World AIDS Day Mass, where I will call to mind friends whose lives have taught me much and who I have lost. On 4th December up comes the anniversary of my diagnosis with cancer. Could you believe looking back that this is an energizing and happy time? But it is.

One of the amazing things about this job is that I sometimes find myself in the middle of chains of events like this month and have to remind myself what’s going on.  And what’s going on here is about cherishing life, with the personal and the professional informing each other.

How does one hold all this without contradiction? Well, what I am trying to say here is that this all actually makes sense to me. Not terribly sure I really can explain it much better than that.  And that means being open to the emotion that’s a part of it. I can no more avoid the emotion of all this than I can fly. Because it’s all too much a part of me. And because it keeps me real, and hopefully not wooden. I can’t do public health without emotion. I think I’m better for it. Whether that helps you I don’t know. But it works for me. Being professional does not mean quarantine for one’s emotions. It means acknowledging them and their impact.

Tomorrow I will have the immense privilege of being with those who despite their bereavement and grief are taking part in a collective exercise to save and cherish life. I know from my own experiences that getting to that place is bloody tough.

I believe in reducing and preventing suicide because the dignity and preciousness of each person means we should seek to prevent suicide wherever possible.

We may have a low suicide rate here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce it as much as we feasibly can. So for as long as I’m in the room tomorrow, I’m up for the conversation. Because I will be in a room full of people I admire beyond words.

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