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What I have learned about suicide

Often treated with the silence of taboo or sensationalism, suicide advances as a serious worldwide public health problem. How empathy has helped me to tackle such a painful and touchy subject.

By Amanda Mont’Alvão Veloso

Published by Equilíbrio – HuffPost Brasil

Alison Burrell (Pexels)
Alison Burrell (Pexels)

I heard a lot and did not speak much about suicide. It seemed too heavy, too bitter to be uttered. I got to know about it through music and literature, and then through the loss of loved ones. The subject was no longer distant, imaginary: it was there, real.

At school, at the age 13, I have seen the weight of its suffocated silence. A high school kid had tried. Nobody said anything. No one tried to put words to represent that perplexity. But everything seemed to scream, especially the despair of the student. What hurt him so bad that was so urgent and insolvable to the point of wanting to kill himself?

When studying journalism, more silence: there is no talk of suicide in the press because it “stimulates” other attempts. Very emphatic and generalizing, no room for questions. It seemed a very disconnected recommendation of the reality and suffering that a suicide represents.

In graduate school I had contact with psychoanalysis and a revolutionary vision of the world, at least for me: each person is absolutely unique, even in the way they experience suffering. If I had previously thought that suicide was an act of cowardice or giving up, there was empathy, showing that trying to feel the pain of the other had nothing to do with my idea of the world or narcissistic issues of mine, but with the other’s reality. A person in a state of extreme despair and vulnerability, to the point of not being able to see the way out of their suffering. A person who needed to be heard and welcomed because he/she might not want death if he/she were in better condition. My point of view on suicide had changed. People needed help and possibly did not know how to ask for it. Or they were not encouraged to do so. After all, we do not talk about suicide.

As a mental health editor and reporter in the Equilibrio section of HuffPost Brazil, I started researching about the silence surrounding suicide for a series of stories that addressed the issue in a direct and respectful manner. Our idea was to show the concerning increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths – at least 32 Brazilians kill themselves each day – the difficulty of addressing the issue and the transformational effect of a person’s ability to talk about suicidal ideas: if there was prevention, 9 out of 10 people would still be alive, according to WHO.

With Psychoanalysis – a few years ago I decided to graduate in the area – I saw the transforming power of speech, which often dissolves sufferings and names rather distressing emotions. The path between pain and the possibility of putting it into words is a kind of translation of something that could not be said before. So it seemed to be the suffering that precedes many suicides: the impossibility of turning the desperate experience into words. The work on prevention done by the Center for Appreciation of Life (CVV) seemed even more appropriate, since the organization deals with human suffering daily and puts in practice the beautiful exercise of empathy that is to hear, without judging, a person in a state of despair.

In researching and talking to CVV volunteers, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists, I realized that prevention could be a reality, but talking about it had to be expanded, especially beyond mental health circles.

However, suicide is still a great taboo in our society, which sometimes treats the subject with a silence of those who can not be known, or approaches it with sensationalism and explicit details, as if it is something supposed to affect the others only – never us.

The detachment of the subject by many people showed not only the difficulty in dealing with death, but also the stigma that the idea of suicide would only occur to some – the “weak ones.” This idea is rather misleading: thinking about suicide is much more common than you think and can occur with any of us. What is really alarming is that many people don’t even admit the thought about it, which greatly decreases the possibilities of doing something about it.

Especially on the part of the press, the silence about suicide was justified by the fear that talking about it would be a way of encouraging the act, in a kind of spreading. The German writer Goethe needed to come to the public to defend himself because a hundred young people committed suicide after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774, in which the main character kills himself. The imitation of suicides came to be called the Wertherna Effect in medical literature.

The perception of a “spreading” in Vienna in the 1980s has initiated a manual for media professionals on how to approach suicide. In the five years that followed his manual, the suicide rate in the Austrian subway fell by 75%, according to the Brazilian Association of Psychiatry (ABP).

In many places, the caution recommended in covering news had become a dangerous silence. It is necessary to talk about suicide, but with responsibility and discretion. In a WHO report released in 2014, the agency includes sensational coverage of the media as a risk factor, either by contributing with “imitations” or by stigmatizing people.

Such care doesn’t need to become a discouraging dogma. In order to put them into practice, the best measure is empathy. What if they were talking about you and your life? After all, talking about suicide is not talking about something abstract, with which we have no relation of identification. Talking about suicide is necessarily talking about a person, a subject with a history of his own, whose death will affect other lives.

It is to talk about pain, grieving, asking for help, the difficulty grieving families and friends go through. There is no reason or objectivity that would cope with such an event. Just like death, coping with suicide requires kindness and respect. Every day, we are encouraged to go over our emotions and treat them as an attachment to our lives, as if we become practical and flawless to the unforeseen. But life is made of unpredictability, of contact with the other and losses that generate suffering. The least we can do is to give ourselves time – and give time and welcome the other – so we can treat the wounds.

The series of reports Breaking the Silence About Suicide was published in September, during the campaign #SetembroAmarelo