A recent column by the director of New Zealand’s Suicide Prevention Office argued that ‘normalising talking about suicide’ doesn’t help. Linda Collins, the author of a forthcoming book about losing a child to suicide, wonders how silence can ever be a solution.
Just this week, a friend who helps maintain a suicide prevention website messaged me about a piece someone she suggested she put up. It was from a major international publishing house and titled “Empathy Reading: the Best Novels About Suicide”.
The piece said “the tremendous success of the book and Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has shown us that there’s a hunger for literary explorations of suicide … We’ve assembled a list that, while not explicitly healing, provide clarity and above all, solidarity”.
Perhaps this is what Carla na Nagara, the director of the Ministry of Health’s Suicide Prevention Office, was talking about when she wrote last month in The Spinoff, “international evidence tells us normalising talking about suicide is not helpful”.
The books on the reading list are fiction and, as I told my friend, it is a bad idea to have them on a suicide prevention site. This is because they follow the conventions of action, rising action, obstacle, overcoming it, and resolution. Impressionable young readers will not get clarity, let alone solidarity (what is even meant by that?) about the reality of suicide. In fact, they will get a very wrong idea about it. I know. I live that reality.
My daughter, Victoria McLeod, took her life six years ago. She was 17 years old. I have written a book about it, Loss Adjustment, to be published by Awa Press on October 20. My book is non-fiction and had to meet the social sciences requirements of the university ethics committee where I wrote it for my masters degree. Unlike the fiction on the reading list, this is not a coming-of-age story where a protagonist learns valuable life lessons from a friend’s suicide, and life continues with this new “normal”.
My life will never be normal. In my book, there is no “plot”. My daughter died. That happens pretty much straight away in the opening pages. Any action is the resulting wake and funeral. Then after that, confusion, blame and anguish circling on itself. As for resolution, there is no ending to the pain of loss. No daughter magically returns and we continue on, older but wiser, skipping into the sunset.
Where I disagree with na Nagara is her claim that talking about suicide will not help prevent suicide and could have the opposite effect, noting that “all this ‘talking about it’ has not led to a decrease in our suicide rate”. Firstly, the increase could be due to other factors ranging from societal pressures that have not been addressed, to prosaic aspects such as more deaths stated as suicide rather than the more vague “accidental death”.
Secondly, one of the reasons I wrote Loss Adjustment is to open up talk on suicide. This is because I had seen the effects of being silenced. My daughter, a New Zealander in a school in Singapore, became so stricken by social anxiety that she became incapable of answering questions in class. I was not informed about this by the school, but I now know that she turned to writing a diary to express her thoughts to try and make sense of them, though at her young age, she lacked the problem-solving skills that would have enabled this. That is what happens when conversations are stifled, or when there is no mature or trained person to externalise and guide. The thoughts don’t go away but are driven inward in a dysfunctional manner.
Victoria understood this, and wrote of wanting to help others like her. In an entry one month before her death she said that she wanted money to “be given to charity. One that raises awareness about social anxiety … So that teachers don’t always assume that the kid at the back of class who never raises their hand isn’t just ‘shy’, when they are really paralysed with fear and hopelessness that they believe no one could ever understand”.
Yet for whatever reason, not enough resources are given to facilitate mental-health counselling to enable necessary conversations. I wonder, Why are the needy, regardless of rich or poor, marginalised this way? Why is this a lesser priority in society?
As for na Nagara’s implicit worry about copycat suicides, shutting down talk about Victoria’s suicide did not prevent such a death. The school forbade students from talking about her. It refused an offer of an external specialist counselling team to help teens talk about Victoria and express their grief. Yet, 10 months after Vic’s death, a boy who had been in her class took his life the same way.
I agree with na Nagara that mental health services are just a part of the solution – I would say, an absolutely vital part – and that there are serious issues of inequity and human rights to address. But reducing suicide is much more than addressing systemic problems. There is much yet to explore in the areas of sociological, biological, neurological, biochemical and environmental causes of suicide, too.
Emphasising that the conversation on suicide needs to be more about societal and systemic issues is good, but it is not the full picture. It’s important to talk about it all, all the confusing nonfictional mess of its awful reality, and to not signal to the suicidal that if your problems are not to do with the latest emphasis, better shut up and harden up.
And what has been the effect of Loss Adjustment opening up the conversation on suicide? It was first published in Singapore in September last year. Mothers there who have lost kids this way then formed the PleaseStay movement to advocate for suicide prevention. We have been to institutions of power, from high-ups at the Ministry of Education and the National Council of Social Services, to the Institute of Mental Health, and shared our lived experiences. The result is that authorities there are looking at where the system is failing within their organisations, and making changes. They tell us they are doing this because our talks with them bring home the message in a way they just cannot ignore.
These organisations are now also more aware of the need to co-ordinate the various services and are working towards this. Other stuff: three months after Loss Adjustment was published, the act of taking your life was removed from the statute books as a crime. Nominated MP Anthea Ong read the book and it informed her when she spoke up in Singapore’s parliament for better mental health care.
And I receive many messages from readers who say the book prompted them to open up difficult but transformative conversations with their kids – talk they would have once avoided.
People come up to me after readings and signings and tell me things they anguished over in silence for years, such as being a closeted gay person, or feeling oppressed by racism, or worrying about being able to provide for their family. That’s the thing about talking about this taboo subject of suicide: the act of my giving testimony, allows them to bear witness too. And once the secret is spoken, it does not have so much power over a person. It is out in the open, to be examined, understood and acted upon.
Linda Collins is the author of Loss Adjustment, out with Awa Press on October 20. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.
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