Breaking the stigma of mental health issues could save lives

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Trigger Warning: Suicide

Almost four years ago, a day before her birthday, my exuberant, life-of-the-party sister-friend committed suicide.

The day before she took her life, we had had a disagreement via WhatsApp. One we had yet to resolve. 

The next thing I heard,  she was gone. She had hung herself in the shower, putting an end to her relentless suffering once and for all.

As I write this,  there is a knot in my heart and a lump in my throat. This is the first time I have ventured so close to my fury, regret and grief. I try to avoid it or risk coming undone.  

She had attempted suicide several times before. I remember, reluctantly, how she lamented the fact -  as we sat, after another failed attempt, on a bench at the Sea Point Promenade feeling held and healed, both by each others' presence and the vast blue sea  - that:

"Overdosing on pills doesn't work. I just need to accept that. All you end up with is this disgusting charcoal they give you."

We half-laughed. I breathed, relieved. I hoped that she would stop now; that this was the dawn of a new paradigm for her.  It occurred to me how wrong I was and how, too quickly, I had become inattentive. 

It's estimated that 7582 South Africans die by their own hand every year,  according to the SA Federation for Mental Health. Two hundred and thirty people attempt suicide every day in South Africa and 23 succeed.

I wonder if that number might dwindle if depression weren't so often glibly dismissed as indolence.

Or if those who chose to use medication as treatment weren't bashed by the Bible of alternative remedies (which, I do believe have their place) and told that all they need to do is get more sun; their suffering invalidated as a result. 

Indeed,  there are many for whom medication does nothing but cause headache upon headache.  But for every person for whom meds don't work, there is someone who is having success.   

I wonder if this number would drop if feeling like you want to throw in the towel were treated as less of a shame, but more as an indicator that here is a person who needs you to be present for them. If depression, suicide and mental illness generally were destigmatised, how many next hangings could be avoided? 

My sister-friend resisted the use of medication.

I think she felt that if she were to use meds,  it would be confirmation of the mental illness she wanted nothing to do with.  

And she wasn't ready for that yet. The stigma surrounding the whole business of mental health in general was too overwhelming for her.  And life was overwhelming enough.  She didn't need to add stigma to the mix. 

I've spent four years avoiding her death, not wanting to be drawn into the maelstrom of emotion.  But there'd be reminders everywhere.  

In her profile photo that would pop up on Facebook when I typed a word that began with the first three letters of her name. Or every November with the prompt for me to 'wish her well on her birthday'.

I'd feel the sadness come and my heart begin to ache then.  And, as has happened a few times, when I see someone who looks or sounds like her. 

We left each other that day with a defeated silence between us. I expected to hear from her again soon - perhaps to iron out the issue and make our peace.

It haunts me that we never got to. I'd meant to tell her that I wasn't angry. That we must let bygones be bygones. Also, that I thought she was brave, intelligent, funny and beautiful.  

One of the finest human beings I knew.  And I admired her so. 

Have you been in a similar situation and lost a loved one to suicide? Share your stories with us and it could be featured in a future article. Please let us know if you'd like us to use your name or if you'd prefer to remain anonymous.

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