Suicice is a shocking phenomenom. Not only the fact itself but also the rising number of suicide attempt and actual completions. Why do people have the wish to take their own life? And most importantly, what kind of support would help them, to reconsider their decision?
When my Co-worker Jenny* started to stay absent from work more often, no one in the team was very happy about it. We had to cover her work more often than not. And even if she was showing up at work, her mind still seemed to be absent – she appeared to us as if she was daydreaming, maybe a bit sad, but definitively not focused. I was wondering how to ask her what´s wrong but I also did not want to cross any boundaries. My colleagues were getting more and more frustrated every time she called in sick. When she was coming back after another few weeks of sick leave, we decided to confront her. While she was having her lunch break (again she preferred to eat alone in her office) we waited for her in the kitchen, offered her tea and cake and ask her what´s wrong. While she was hesitating to answer that question one of my colleagues became a bit impatient and told her very bluntly, if she does not like her job anymore, she probably should look for an alternative.
Jenny looked up from her dishes she was about to clean and just answered, that she is sorry, that she had some private problems to deal with and she will be getting better soon.
This was the last day we saw Jenny. She did not even hand in her resignation, she just did not show up at work anymore, neither did she answer her phone. A few weeks later we found out that Jenny was in a psychiatric hospital after an attempt of suicide – her second one actually. Jenny suffered from severe depression for a long time and her symptoms have worsened due to recent relationship problems.
How could we have known that her constitution was that bad?
How could we have helped her?
Was there anything we could have done?
Worldwide 264 million people have been diagnosed with depression in 2017 which made it the second most common mental illness right after anxiety disorders (1). Within the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a another 25% (2). And suicide still causes the second largest number of deaths amongst young age groups (3). Considering the current global crisis (e.g., ongoing pandemic, effects of the war in the Ukraine) this number will most likely increase dramatically over the next years (even months).
People suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, most commonly won’t talk about their condition freely. The reason for this is the ongoing stigmatisation of people with mental disorders. Being mentally ill, comes with a Stigma and this Stigma comes with negative effects such as discrimination, exclusion, and isolation of effected people (see article: The vicious power of Stigma). Mental illness still comes along with prejudices against affected people. People who are off sick with an ”invisible” condition such as depression or anxiety, are often understood as being lazy or weak. If the same person is being off sick because of a broken bone, most likely that s/he will not be judged the same way. While a person suffering from depression is expected to “just pull themselves together”, the same person would be sent home to rest if s/he would have thrown up over the office floor. If Jenny would have told her colleges about her thoughts and worries, what she most likely would have heard is: “Heads up, it’s going to be alright”. If she would have shown up with a swollen cheek, the probable response would instead have been: “Go and see a dentist immediately”!
Mental illnesses are still not been considered as equal to physical illnesses and affected people are far away from being treated equally as well. Not only that mental health problems are often not visible and therefore not been taken seriously. But also, widespread Stigma, which is based on prejudice and superstitions prevent people from getting the help they would need, and they are legally eligible to receive. People who suffer from mental disorders are being exposed to Stigma on a daily basis. Not only through media (such as new, TV-shows, social media) but also in most kind of interaction with other human beings (such as public institutions, workplaces, group settings etc.).
Jenny, next to the struggles she was dealing with, had to hide her condition from her co-workers because she was most likely expecting to been stigmatized again. Her expectation to be not understood but judged was confirmed by her co-worker. When he asked her, if she does not like her job anymore and why she doesn’t look for another one, her experienced of being excluded for her condition, being judged for her sadness, and being scolded for her “weakness” repeated, as it has been for so many years. Jenny felt ashamed and most likely guilty for letting her co-workers down. Her already critical constitution worsened after this incident in the kitchen. Shame and guilt were nagging her brain and she could not think of another solution than taking the knife she was just pulling out to peel the potatoes for dinner and cut her lover left arm wide open. When her husband arrived home, she was already unconsciousness. The ambulance came fast, and Jenny survived that night.
This situation could have happened anywhere. It’s a fictional story and yet, it repeats itself every day in different places in the world. That’s why the perception of mental illness must change. It must change on an institutional level the same way it will have to change on an individual level. Everyone can be affected by a mental disorder the same way as everyone of us can suffer from tooth pain, regular fever, or a broken leg. And there is nothing wrong with that – there is treatment available in many countries of the world. The reason why people don’t dare to get treated is the barriers to receive treatment. One of the biggest barriers is Stigma which is based on prejudice. Apart from medical treatment social support is the most important resource to improve mental illnesses. Instead of judgement each of us can give social assistance to people with mental health problems. If one of Jenny´s co-workers would have asked her for once “Is there any way, we can help you?” her story would maybe have ended differently. We all can act – let’s start now!