I was 28 when I went to S’s funeral – her family asked us to wear colours as bright as her. She had easily been the sunniest girl at school, yet being kind, clever and bloody funny didn’t stop her dying by suicide. I couldn’t believe the contrast between her public and private sides, but then I was deluded, too. By that point, I had been masking my own mental health problems for 16 years.
Hiding what is wrong has become all too common. For many people, the shocking news that Caroline Flack had taken her own life will have resurfaced terrible memories, as well as deep sorrow for all those who loved her. Quite apart from the devastation of a young, talented woman feeling hopeless enough to take her own life, it is the slow creep of this happening more frequently.
Last Wednesday, her family released an unpublished Instagram post that she had been advised not to share. ‘I’ve been pressing the snooze button on many stresses in my life – for my whole life,’ she wrote. ‘The problem with brushing things under the carpet is... they are still there.’
In 2019, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that suicides in females aged 10 to 24 have risen by 83% in six years. The Samaritans’ head of research and evaluation, Elizabeth Scowcroft, calls this ‘concerning’, saying, ‘Much more needs to be done in order to understand why young women are taking their own lives, why rates are increasing across the UK and how to support women better.’
It has taken me 20 years to get to a point where I can just crack on with life. The thoughts telling me that I was a defective, disgusting person melted away with a good antidepressant. The anxious heartbeat could be quietened with beta blockers. A good therapist found via the BACP website has helped significantly, as, more recently, did treatment for the lifelong eating disorder I had dismissed as panicky greed. Statistics shared by the Mental Health Foundation charity show that, while women and men suffer equally with mental health problems, women are more prone to certain conditions. One in four women will require treatment for depression, compared to one in 10 men, and women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety disorders.
Certainly, what is needed is investment in mental health services, rather than the current simplistic trend for ‘awareness’, like the flood of #BeKind hashtags.
It is when issues are compounded – mental health conditions, work and social pressure, life online – that difficulties arise, often manifesting in physical self-harm. ‘Suicide is complex, and it is rarely caused by one thing, but we do know that self- harm is a strong risk factor for suicide,’ says Scowcroft. ‘Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress and we know self-harm rates have risen dramatically over the past 15 years, particularly in young women. This is incredibly worrying and is the reason why much of our policy and research work currently focuses on understanding and preventing self-harm.’
Sensationalist news stories with the emphasis on clicks rather than the safety of their subjects and readers do not help. ‘Putting an awareness box on the end of a piece is like applying factor 50 but not turning down the heat,’ says mental health campaigner Natasha Devon OBE, who helped launch Grazia’s Where’s Your Head At? campaign in 2018. ‘We need to understand that some media discourse is making mental health difficulties worse: not just for people in the spotlight, but for those who are exposed to that conversation.’
Certainly, what is needed is investment in mental health services, rather than the current simplistic trend for ‘awareness’, like the flood of #BeKind hashtags and exhortations to talk that surfaced on Twitter in the wake of Caroline’s death. However, Devon says they can have merit. ‘Awareness on its own isn’t enough but there is inherent value in being able to communicate and connect. When you discuss your mental health with somebody who doesn’t show judgement and makes you feel safe, it controls the dopamine secretion in your brain, so you walk away with good clarity of thought.’
So who do we talk to? Speaking to loved ones isn’t always simple. I was deeply saddened by an Instagram post Caroline wrote in October, saying that she had reached out to someone, but they had called her ‘draining’. This is no reflection on the friend – people often are not set up for dealing with severe mental health problems. But given how stretched the UK’s mental health services are, what’s the alternative?
Last week, I spoke to a woman who was experiencing suicidal thoughts: she said she was offered a GP appointment in three weeks’ time. For therapy, waiting lists can be up to six, even 18 months long. Suicide is a preventable tragedy, but it needs robust investment in services that are at breaking point, as a recent report on ‘hidden waiting lists’ for NHS mental health patients proved. ‘We want to ensure patients have access to high-quality care in a timely manner,’ a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said at the time.
These days, I could contact a sanctuary, such as north London’s Maytree, which offers free in-patient respite to people experiencing suicidal thoughts. I could text a free messaging service, such as Shout (text Shout to 85258) and under-35s could call Papyrus’s Hopeline (0800 068 41 41). Devon also recommends Hub of Hope, an app that connects users to nearby mental health services. BACP-registered counsellor and psychotherapist Katerina Georgiou stresses that the Samaritans service is invaluable for people in imminent crisis, and she would know – she spent four years as a volunteer. ‘So much of suicidal ideation is in that immediate moment,’ she says. ‘If you can have those feelings alleviated quickly, I recommend that. Those calls are free and anonymous, you have nothing to lose in calling them.’
Extreme mental health difficulty can come on with breathtaking suddenness, no matter who you are. ‘It’s not an us and them scenario,’ says Georgiou. ‘Anyone at any moment can be vulnerable to crisis.’
It’s important for us all to understand that there is help available, especially during those moments of incredible danger – and to be able to take it. It is devastating that Caroline Flack wanted to disappear so desperately, and a tragedy that she did.
HOW TO GET HELP
Anyone can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email jo@samaritans. org or visit samaritans.org to find your nearest branch, where you can talk to a trained volunteer face to face.