Electroconvulsive Treatment

Suicide and self-harm

People we spoke to had often experienced highly distressing thoughts and feelings. You can read more about this here: ‘Depression, psychosis and anxiety’ and ‘First becoming unwell’. These feelings could at times seem overwhelming and too difficult to deal with. Some had self-harmed e.g. cut themselves to cope with emotional pain, or attempted to end their lives at least once. While self-harm (intentionally hurting yourself) may lead to suicide, self-harm is wider-ranging then that and includes alcohol abuse, not eating and burning yourself and is often a way of coping or telling others that there is a problem. It was often difficult, even many years later, for people to talk about the details of trying to end their lives.

The Chair of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group says that talking about suicide does not encourage it and may save a life. And although asking about suicide can be uncomfortable, the person concerned might feel relieved that others are aware how bad they feel.

Thoughts of suicide ranged from disturbing, intrusive thoughts, to almost comforting -to end the trauma. At the time when they attempted suicide or self-harmed, many people describe being afraid, “scared by what was happening in [their] mind” and unable to cope. Some felt like they had lost control, or that everything was “unreal”. Other people said that trying to end their life seemed logical at the time, for example because it would be better for others if they weren’t around. Julian said the decision to end his life was “rational” and he felt he’d “reached the end of the line”. Some appeared to be coping on the surface, but had moments of deep despair. Kathleen said when she was self-harming she was able to “[hold] it together”, even though she “wasn’t doing very well really inside”. When Yvonne attempted suicide at the age of 18, her attempt failed. She woke up in the morning with “the mother of hangovers” and just went to work. She didn’t know she was mentally ill.  While suicide could seem the logical thing at the time, people could equally “snap out of it” by thinking of their responsibilities to family or others
While attempting suicide was a rare event for most, for some it happened repeatedly. Tracy said “it was almost a habit” that when things got really bad she would overdose. Most of the time she said this was a “cry for help” but on one occasion she said she really did want to die. Sheila’s husband took an overdose on 6 occasions and she believes he meant to die. After recovering, he would say “well it hasn’t worked has it”. However, Beattie said although she had tried to commit suicide a few times she’d never done it “properly,” and Jenny described herself as making “quite a few trivial suicide attempts”.

Getting help
People often found it difficult to talk about what they were experiencing. They didn’t want people to worry, felt embarrassed and ashamed about their thoughts, or found that others were uncomfortable talking about it. When Catherine Y took an overdose at the age of 16 she didn’t feel able to speak to her parents about it. There was no history of mental illness in the family, and she felt they didn’t understand and were too close to the “issues and situation”. For some, even talking to a professional was difficult. However, several people mentioned talking to the Samaritans, which they found helpful. Catherine Y phoned the Samaritans from a phone box after she had run away from home. The Samaritans advised her to call the police and she was picked up and brought to hospital. You can read more about where people turned for support here: ‘Support networks' and about relationships with family members here: ‘Family relationships’.
Some people were in hospital when they tried to end their life or were harming themselves. Enid says that she was trying to hurt herself “with everything [she] could lay [her] hands on” and staff tried to stop her. She said staff were very good. Others had negative experiences and felt staff were not so supportive.
Caring for someone who was mentally ill and at risk of harming themselves could be very upsetting and stressful for carers. People usually felt very responsible for the person they cared for whilst they were at home, and some felt healthcare services were unhelpful when it came to self-harm and suicide issues. When a loved one repeatedly attempted suicide, family members often had to reduce working hours so they could be with them or find other ways to check on them regularly. Some carers expressed feelings of anxiety, anger and resentment, even though they knew the mental illness was the cause of the problem (for more see ‘Caring for someone with a mental illness’).
Last reviewed January 2018.

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