Haunted by Unanswered Questions

In 2009 there was an alarming 25% increase in suicide and the provisional figures for 2010 expect that the 2009 figure of 520 individuals taking their own precious lives has not reduced. It is still men who predominately take their lives but this does not mean that men are more miserable and hopeless than women. Indeed, the fact that the rate of parasuicide is three to one in favour of women could suggest that women are in deeper emotional turmoil. However, when women attempt suicide they tend to use more passive means – like drug over-dosing – compared to men who use more aggressive ways – hanging, shooting themselves and car crashing.  When women’s attempts at suicide are, thankfully, not successful, there is a chance that they might get the help they need to resolve what are the hidden issues that would have led them to take their sacred lives. There is a cynical notion out there that some women attempt suicide to get attention, but the questions arises: how is it they would need to resort to such drastic measures to draw attention to their inner pain?

The topic of suicide arose again in the media because of front page news due to two judges from different parts of the country commenting on the rise of suicide among the middle-aged and the elderly. Isolation, loneliness and living in remote rural areas are among some of the social explanations that are being voiced. However, the difficulty with sociological explanations is that not everyone who is isolated, lonely and living in a remote rural area takes their lives; indeed, only a very, very small percentage do. The reasons people attempt suicide or take their own lives lie at a deeper intrapsychic level. Individuals who are disconnected from themselves, who have little or no sense of their worth, who feel unlovable, a burden on their families, passive, hopeless about anything good happening in their lives, who fill the void with work, alcohol or having to do everything perfectly – these are more likely to take their lives when changes occur in their outer worlds or when the dreariness of their outer world does not change.

The two most common responses  to an individual who ends his own life is: ‘why did he not talk about what was troubling him’ or ‘if the person who is troubled does not talk, he won’t know there is help out there.’ Each of these responses begs a question: ‘how is it that the person who did not talk come to believe that not talking about emotional turmoil is the thing to do?’ and ‘how is it that a person who is suicidal has come to believe that there is nobody out there who will understand?’

With regard to the first abegging question, communication within most social, educational and work settings is where people either talk at or to each other and, consequently, never get to know each other and make it profoundly unsafe for each other to be real and authentic. When a person speaks at somebody – child, teenager or adult – they are preaching or moralising or controlling or dominating or all four together, such that the other person can never or, indeed, dare not get a word in, even edgeways. This type of interaction not only disempowers but also makes it extremely fearful, even terrifying for the person to express anything that is contrary to the person who speaks at them. Silence, governorship of the tongue and passivity are the reactions most found in response to authority figures – parents, teachers, clergy, employers, managers, politicians – who talk at their charges.

When people talk to others, they also disempower, because they are constantly advising, telling, directing and counselling others what to think, say and do. Human beings – and this includes children, teenagers, students and employees – have immense wisdom, intelligence and creativity to express themselves and to find their own answers to the inevitable challenges that arise in their lives. Being deprived of such opportunities results in a loss of their own voice and an unconscious determination to keep hidden whatever inner or outer turmoil that occurs. Examples of inner turmoil are a sense of not mattering, of not feeling anybody truly listens or understands, a hate of self, a feeling of being useless or a failure, sexual identity confusion, a feeling of unlovability, a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, a belief that nothing will change and that their inner misery will never end. Examples of outer turmoil are being bullied, hating school, relationship break-up, loss of status, sexual abuse, physical violence, unrealistic expectations by significant others.

Examination of how individuals within social settings communicate is not only a revealing window into each person’s interiority, but also provides some measure of the level of emotional and social safety to speak the truth, to spontaneously express one’s emergency and welfare feelings, to talk about one’s fears, doubts and insecurities and to reveal any threats that arise in relationships inside and outside the social setting wherein the communication takes place. No matter where – home, classroom, workplace, church, community – when individuals communicate with each other, there is an equality, an active listening, a celebration of difference, an affirmation of  the individual, an unconditional regard and non-judgemental attitude. With such mature communication, individuals who are troubled and troubling will speak of and seek support for their inner turmoil. The sad fact is that this mature communication is a rare phenomenon and why oh why are we then surprised that those who self-harm, or attempt or commit suicide do not talk.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker.  His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.