On loss and learning

Lol Butterfield, mental health campaigner
Lol Butterfield, mental health campaigner
I have lost too many friends and service users through suicide over the past 30 years.

We examine our consciences to see if we could have done more to prevent such deaths, that’s a normal human reaction. It’s what empathy and compassion is about. Being a nurse, as I am, is irrelevant, it is about being human. We consider those left behind to face the future and what support they need. It becomes a tragedy that spreads a pond like ripple of despair and pain. Nobody is immune from this rippling effect.

Often in our hour of need we turn to those who we know can provide support. Those who can help us to work our way through the grieving process. Sometimes just a listening ear or supportive approach by anyone is suffice. Sometimes more professional help is required. Everyone is different. We are all unique. We all deal with the inner pain following a death in the way we know best, our resilience levels dictate our strengths and coping abilities in times like these.

Recently, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on suicide and self-harm prevention called for councils to develop and implement suicide prevention strategies. The APPG report revealed that more than a quarter (27%) of English authorities do not have any such specific strategy. As the APPG said: “The existence of any such plan is open to chance rather than determined by any national policy.”

The APPG wants councils to be obliged to develop a suicide prevention plan led by the director of public health or senior member of the public health team: “The plan should include provision for self-harm prevention and those bereaved by suicide.” As the group stressed, more than 5,500 people die by suicide each year in the UK and for people aged 15-24 it is the second largest cause of death after road accidents.

While I support anything that raises awareness of self-harm and suicide, I strongly feel that the responsibility for suicide prevention should not just be down to the passion of area ‘champions’ who have a particular interest in this. I believe all local authorities must seriously address suicide awareness, and prevention, as a matter of urgency. This is of particular relevance with increasing self-harm and suicide rates taking into account the recession and how this impacts on peoples lives at a personal level.

Mental health promotion is now under the control of local authorities, although personally I believe we all have a responsibility if working in social or health care to positively promote mental health.

As well as the personal costs to each family of a suicide the financial costs through lost earnings etc for a lifetime run into many thousands of pounds. As a compassionate and humane society I believe we have a moral duty to have in place coordinated strategic approaches to address the issue of suicide prevention involving all stakeholders. The NHS, local authority, the Police, The Samaritans, Cruse Bereavement counselling, community mental health support groups, and so on. In fact the list could be endless because in reality so many people are potential victims of suicide, directly or indirectly.

From a personal perspective, following my redundancy last summer my mood dipped. In fact it plummeted. Voluntary work at that time ensured my self esteem and confidence would stay above the water. I experienced ‘dark’ thoughts myself brought about by feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness finding myself unemployed after a lifetime of work.

The adjustment to the situation I now found myself in did not come easy. My intensive role in advising Zak Dingle in his depression storyline in the Soap Emmerdale conversely helped lift my own mood. I felt valued because I knew I was making a difference. I knew that I was raising awareness of mental illness to a large viewing public in a sensitive and non stereotypical way. Winning the Mind Media Awards a few months ago for this storyline further boosted my self-esteem even more.

Zak’s symptoms were intended to educate, encourage empathy, and promote more understanding of depression and how people can reach the point of suicidal ideation. They were intended to highlight how mental illness not only affects the person but also the loved ones of that person. I invested much time and effort to try to get this right and confess it wasn’t perfect, but nothing is. It helped me considerably as much as it helped others I had hoped to understand more and assume less about mental health.

I was also asked by a good friend to consider becoming more involved with Stamp Revisited, a wonderful, life changing for some, advocacy service on Teesside for those affected by mental illness. I had been a member for many years and applied to be on the group’s executive comittee. I was accepted.

This also boosted my self-confidence and esteem and played no small part in helping to lift my mood to a more acceptable level. Stamp Revisited is a charity and, as such, relies heavily on donations and the generosity of its volunteers. its aim is simple. To help those who struggle with mental ill health, any one of us at any time in our lives could be in this position. It would be fair to say their work has at times saved lives.

Knowing someone is there in your darkest hour can help to steer you away from the depths of despair. Specialist support can offer a more objective view on improving your personal situation that may have been lost in the spiral of depression. Insight can be lost in severe depression. Taking your own life can then become an option you would not have considered, ever. Knowing people are there to listen makes such a difference and words cannot explain how life saving this may be.

* The Samaritans’ Media Guidelines aim to promote the sensitive reporting of suicide and self-harm incidents