Today is International Suicide Prevention Day. This year’s theme is: Strengthening Protective Factors and Instilling Hope. Across the globe approximately one million people die by suicide each year. That’s one death every 40 seconds; more than the combined deaths from all homicides and wars. The statistics offered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) tell us that between 10 and 14% of the general population across their lifespan experience suicide ideation; thinking about death.
Understanding why a person would choose to end their life is beyond most of us. I like the Jenga tower metaphor. Jenga is played with 54 wooden blocks. Each block is three times as long as its width, and one fifth as thick as its length. To set up the game, which has 18 levels of three blocks placed adjacent to each other along their long side and perpendicular to the previous level (so, for example, if the blocks in the first level lie lengthwise north-south, the second level blocks will lie east-west). Interpreting that in human terms, life builds on a foundation established of values, experiences and perspectives of others and self within the community of home and then as one moves in concentric circles into ever broadening communities those elements are once more influenced by others, to change our perspectives, and challenge values set within the context of family.
The happy memories and experiences that increase our sense of worth and belonging build resilience and serve as protective factors in our ‘tower’; they strengthen us. Research tells us that good support networks form one of the most valuable protective factors: things like family connectedness and our friends. But the sum of life is good times; and sorrowful and challenging times. Over the span of a person’s life if there have been opportunities to set down protective factors in a number of areas of our life, when the challenging times render us vulnerable we have those protective factors on which to draw. They are our strength in times of vulnerability. They help pull us through tough times and continue to build the reservoir of human resilience. Tragedies and/or traumatic events shake our world but we’ve got reserves and good protective factors to support us, and generally as the consequences of these events dissipate we are able to rebuild often becoming stronger because of the experience.
However, when one sad event stacks on top of another with little let up between events, pressure builds. There is little time to recover from each event when the next traumatic event happens. The relentless emotional and mental demands to manage in circumstances of increased vulnerability wear down the reservoirs and the tower begins to lean. Trauma experienced in childhood may be relived many many times throughout a life, other experiences that fracture our world continue to whittle away our resilience if we have few protective factors to support us.
Either a life time of emotional pain or one more challenging event for which there are no reserves left on which to draw may lead a person to feel suicide is the only way to stop the pain: the pain of the psyche. Suicide is rarely about one life event. It is the sum of life events that caused the Jenga tower to topple for 2, 000 Australians in 2009 (latest statistics available).
The community I work within bears witness to the sorrow with which people live daily. The challenges often seem too hard and there seem to be few answers. If I didn’t believe everyone has some resilience on which to draw, with help, I could not continue to help people work through their suicide ideations on an almost weekly basis. The more I work with those affected by drug and/or alcohol addiction I am inspired by their strength, tenacity and resilience to keep going. Yes, often they need support from strangers because they’ve worn their families down. Life is precious and I’m privileged to be able to walk alongside some members of our community who feel too vulnerable to do it on their own.
For one young person the pain was too much and for her tonight I’ll light a candle at 8pm. Will you join me and light a candle for someone you may know, or know of, who has taken their life by suicide. For their families and to honour their memory. We can all do something. We can help to strengthen protective factors whatever they may be, things that help us cope in stressful times. Find out what has been helpful to someone in the past, how have they managed similar situations in the past, and remind them of that, help to strengthen that protective factor. Another thing we can do to help someone with suicide ideation is to build hope. We can listen – we don’t need the answers we just need to be there.
So today can you identify some of your protective factors? What is your hope? Do you have hope?
… and finally, look around and be socially inclusive even though they aren’t family and you haven’t known them since you can remember, we need each other. We aren’t meant to travel through this life alone or in isolation. Be someone’s protective factor by being there, including them and listening to them. You can do it. We all can do it. It’s easy. Be yourself and you will be the hope to someone who may need it today.