“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming” – The Forgotten Survivors

When Ingrid’s daughter died by suicide she couldn’t imagine the trauma that would face her. Today Luke Hastings exclusively reveals the impact of suicide bereavement after the Health Select Committee recommended new measures of after-care for families left behind.

Michelle was 28 years-old. Her mother Ingrid von Hunnius says she was “bright and intelligent” after graduating with a master’s degree in Biochemistry.

Ingrid recalls the night they stayed up until the early hours of the morning partying before Michelle left for a trip abroad to work in India.

She then points to a photograph of Michelle on the mantelpiece. Ingrid’s next words are heartbreaking: “Six months later, she was dead.”

Michelle died by suicide after overdosing on pills prescribed to treat her depression when she returned home from India.

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A picture of Michelle. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

It was then that Ingrid’s “hugely traumatic” experience began.

“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not just one emotion. It’s shock. It’s sheer terror. It’s indescribable.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief.

“It felt like somebody had hit me in the solar plexus. It stunned me really. You go beside yourself. You’ve never really experienced anything like it. I think you get put onto the baseline of survival,” she says.

Ingrid explains she felt isolated and lost in society, depressed by the stigma that faces those who are bereaved by suicide.

“I find that with the general public or with friends I can’t fully express myself because she’s still part of me. I don’t bring her up because people don’t talk about bereavement by suicide,” she says.

With no postvention support, Ingrid was then left feeling suicidal.

“I had this sense that I was walking around this dark hole and I could just slip into it. One day it occurred to me that if I took a lot of tablets I could get into that dark hole, because I thought Michelle was in there,” she says.

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A painting of Michelle, which sits on the wall in Ingrid’s home. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

Now, the Health Select Committee has recommended new after-care measures for those like Ingrid – the forgotten survivors of suicide.

This follows the committee’s four-month inquiry into suicide prevention. The committee’s interim report, released in December, suggests more primary and secondary support for the families left behind after suicide.

The report says those bereaved by suicide are “not entitled to any support” or a family liaison officer, which would be standard practice in many other causes of death.

The full report will be released at the end of this month with complete details of the support the committee recommends.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was part of the inquiry and says those bereaved by suicide are “left to fend for themselves”.

“We (the Health Select Committee) feel very strongly that there’s not enough support for families. There’s not a consistent enough approach across the country in the way that families are helped and supported,” he says.

The committee’s MPs aren’t alone in feeling there’s not enough support. According to an exclusive Guardian survey a resounding 97% of people don’t think families bereaved by suicide are given enough help.

The committee’s report called suicide rates “unacceptable” and the Samaritans say a person takes their own life every 90 minutes in the UK.

After suicide, the Office for National Statistics found that between six and ten ‘survivors’ are left behind, meaning up to 61,000 people are bereaved by suicide every year.

Those loved ones are three times more likely to take their own lives, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

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Mara Grunau, Executive Director at the Centre for Suicide Prevention, Canada. Photograph: Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau is the Executive Director at the centre, which is based in Canada. They have the largest collection of suicide research in the world.

She explains there’s “no grief like suicide grief” and says that “postvention is critical prevention”.

Mara also says research from the centre confirms those bereaved by suicide feel “shunned,” leaving their grief “un-dealt with”.

The Guardian survey reveals over three-quarters of people believe there’s a stigma around suicide bereavement in the UK.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) say that the insensitive use of language adds to that stigma.

According to the Guardian survey, 60% of the general public would say a person ‘committed suicide’ – even though the term ‘died by suicide’ is recommended.

SOBS play a significant part in many survivor’s lives, including Ingrid. After being unable to find any suicide postvention support, Ingrid teamed up with the charity to start her own support group in Bournemouth.

Ingrid calls the group a “family”. However, she believes there’s even a stigma around attending a support group for suicide bereavement.

“A group is like someone touching your hand, it pulls you out of that dark hole, but the stigma around it stops you putting out that hand,” she explains.

Ingrid says that her own children even believe it’s “bizarre and sick” that she runs the group.

Stigma isn’t the only issue with support groups, as SOBS groups only run once a month, which can be a problem for many who need more help.

Halani Foulsham had to wait 30 days to attend a group after “having a bomb dropped on her life” when her mother died by suicide in 2014.

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Halani looking up to her mother. Photograph: Halani Foulsham.

Halani is the founder of Thought Climber, who have recently released the ‘After Journal,’ a one-of-a-kind interactive and creative book to help those who have been bereaved by suicide to get through their grief.

“The hope is that the journal has shared experience of others to help and is a campaign tool to say we need people to listen. Suicide is a social epidemic. We need to tackle the rampant stigma,” she says.

Following the Health Select Committee report, Halani says she’s concerned that even if there’s more support available in the future, it “won’t mean much” if people don’t know it exists. She says this is a big problem in her experiences with current services.

Ingrid and Halani are not alone in trying to make a difference to postvention, which currently fails bereaved families.

Shirley Smith lost her “normal, bright and witty” 19-year-old son Daniel to suicide in 2005.

She believes the new report is a “huge step” in bringing suicide postvention into the forefront of the political spectrum. However, she’s wary that the report could be “just noise”.

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Shirley Smith, founder of ‘If U Care Share,’ was bereaved by suicide in 2005.

Following the death of her son, she founded the charity ‘If U Care Share’ alongside her children who were left “devastated”.

The Health Select Committee mentioned Shirley’s Durham-based foundation in their report, as they’ve pioneered a system in England to help those who are bereaved by suicide.

Working closely with Durham Public Health D.C.C, they provide a 48-hour service to the survivors left behind after a suicide in the area, helping them with everything from emotional support to how to deal with the coroner’s inquest.

The system is based on a model from Northern Ireland by Barry McGale and since it started in September 2014, the service has helped 94 people to get through the aftermath of their tragedy.

Shirley believes her charity’s system is “critical” for those who have lost a loved one through suicide and says it should be funded nationwide.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief” – Ingrid von Hunnius

Durham’s Labour MP Kevan Jones believes similar arrangements to the ‘If U Care Share’ system will need to be put in place if the newly proposed support is to work.

He thinks the report is a “very important” step in the right direction and stresses there needs to be “clear pathways” for those bereaved by suicide to get support.

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Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb. Photograph: Flickr Creative Commons.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb thinks there should be a consistent national support network in place. He says current services are “wholly inadequate”.

The North Norfolk MP had his own experience with being bereaved by suicide after the loss of his sister in 2015.

He believes it’s “incredibly important” that the government fund new support services and allow third-party voluntary organisations to run them.

“People find it impossible to move on after a suicide. There’s often a lot of guilt and sometimes anger. The net effect of those emotions is that the person becomes quite trapped.

“Ensuring that someone has access to counselling and support is critical,” he says.

Conservative MP Charles Walker is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Suicide Prevention and says he’s concerned about the current lack of suicide postvention support.

However, he’s worried further funding will be unlikely due to economical restrictions.

Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates thinks it’s “pathetic” that the government use austerity as an excuse for not providing suicide postvention support.

Paul attempted to take his own life at the age of 17 and is now a mental health expert, working alongside the NHS supporting people who suffer with mental health conditions, including those bereaved by suicide.

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Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates. Photograph: Paul Scates.

Paul believes we are “letting people down” when they are “left with nothing” and adds that it “doesn’t cost much” to team those affected by suicide bereavement up with experts like himself.

He also thinks the new report is “vague” and is concerned it will simply be “lip service”.

For now, the families left behind after suicide will have to wait and see if the government will accept the recommendations made by the Health Select Committee. Four years ago, the same committee released a similar report. However, critics including Halani Foulsham and Shirley Smith said it resulted in very little being done.

Perhaps now the tide is turning. As well as the Health Select Committee’s inquiry into suicide, Public Health England recently released their guide to providing local services to those bereaved by suicide and Theresa May said the government will tackle suicide last week.

We will find out soon if the government will take action and more after-care will be provided for the forgotten survivors of suicide.


VIEW – The full layout of this investigation, made as if it would go into the Guardian newspaper: https://indd.adobe.com/view/ee840b6c-e149-4101-8c8c-cdb60d4b0378

LISTEN – An exclusive interview with suicide attempt survivor Jonny Benjamin.

WATCH – Exclusive interviews from Maytree suicide sanctuary.

READ MORE – Read more about suicide bereavement, as the investigation meets Lin, a woman bereaved by the suicide of her husband: https://theforgottensurvivors.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/lin-story/

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The media, stigma and support – Lin’s suicide bereavement story

Four years ago today 60-year-old Ray took his life, leaving his wife Lin and two children behind.

“He was always going out laughing and joking. He was always a joker. If someone is withdrawn then you might think they might be the type of person to do it, but because he wasn’t I think that’s why people found it so difficult.

“He would never have gone to the doctors. If he was feeling depressed he would never have talked about it. It’s a male thing with the pride: ‘No I’m alright, I don’t need to speak to anyone’ – he was very much like that. It’s that British stiff upper-lip,” Lin explains.

Now, four years on, Lin is moving out of the house that she had spent the final years of her life with Ray in – she still finds it hard to cope with his loss.

“I felt really cross at first because I thought… ‘how could you do that to our children?’. His grandson was only 6 months old and you think: ‘why? How could you do that?’ You go through a lot of different emotions. At first you’re just shocked. You did keep saying, ‘why did he do that to the children?’ Why would you want to do that? It’s really hard. You can’t understand it,” she explains.

After her loss, like so many others who are bereaved by suicide, Lin didn’t receive any postvention support.

“At the time I was in shock and we all were in shock. You don’t really know how badly you need the support,” she says.

Not only did she not receive any support other than from her family members, she was also faced with some shocking media coverage of her husband’s death. That’s why she wishes to only be referred to by her first name in this article.

The report of the death was national news and after being warned that the media would be attending the inquest, Lin decided not to attend as she was feeling “traumatised”.

Having never made a public statement about her husband’s death, she was shocked to see her words quoted in the national news.

“I can remember sitting at the table for an hour and a half with the policeman. He went through everything and that’s what went in the newspaper,” she says.

Lin was completely unaware that her words given to a police officer just hours after the death of her husband would be read out at the inquest and then reported in both the local and national news.

That wasn’t the end either, as one national newspaper ran an online story with pictures lifted from Lin’s Facebook page.

“I didn’t have protection on there so they took the photos. When I first saw them, those photos are out in my conservatory on the windowsill. I thought someone must have broken in and taken pictures of these photos. I could not get it in my head how they’d got them,” she explains.

Lin says the media coverage “definitely” added to her grief, that was already un-dealt with after no postvention support.

She also believes there is a stigma around being bereaved by suicide and found it hard to talk about after her husband’s death.

“If someone dies of cancer or heart disease you are surrounded by support for that. You can talk to other people. People just don’t talk about suicide as much,” she says.

When the subject of support groups was brought up, Lin was surprised to learn that they existed – emphasising the lack of communication and support offered to those left behind after suicide.

Thankfully, Lin has now got the number for her local SOBS support group and is considering going along to a session in the near future.

 

This story is part of The Forgotten Survivors investigation.

Why saying ‘committed suicide’ adds to stigma

If we are to remove the stigma around suicide – we have to start with the language we use around it.

That’s according to interviewees in The Forgotten Survivors investigation, such as Mara Grunau from the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Canada.

She says we must change the way we refer to suicide to break down the stigma around it.

That thought is echoed by Natalie Howarth from Maytree suicide sanctuary.

An exclusive survey carried out by the investigation found that after hearing of a suicide, 60% of people said they would refer to it as ‘committing’ suicide as opposed to the correct terms which are: took their own life (30%) or died by suicide (10%).

A Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) group in Suffolk started a petition in August 2015 which got over 2000 signatures, to try and ban the term ‘committed suicide’ as it implies suicide is a crime.

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SOBS are a charity who are aiming to set-up suicide bereavement support groups across the UK. They also have a national helpline – 0300 111 5065. It’s open between 9am and 9pm every day.

The term does literally imply the person has ‘committed’ a crime, which they would have been up until the Suicide Act 1961 where suicide was decriminalised.

Our law has moved on and now many charities across the UK (including SOBS) are trying to spread awareness to change the language we use to describe a suicide.

You can view the history of suicide, which takes you through why the word commit is used alongside suicide, in an interactive timeline here.

You can also follow the investigation on Twitter and Facebook to get regular updates.

SURVEY: The results of the exclusive poll

Over the past few weeks an exclusive survey has been carried out by The Forgotten Survivors investigation into suicide and suicide bereavement.

There have been 78 responses and the results are very interesting.

screenshot-11The majority of people said they would talk to a friend or relative if they were feeling suicidal (48%) whilst almost a third of people said they would try to deal with suicidal thoughts on their own. Only 4% of people said they would call a suicide helpline.

After hearing of a suicide, 60% of people said they would refer to it as ‘committing’ suicide as opposed to took their own life (30%) and died by suicide (10%). This only adds to the stigma around suicide, with the wrong language being used to describe it. The word ‘commit’ implies the person has committed a crime, which they would have been up until the Suicide Act 1961 where it was decriminalised. Our law has moved on and now many charities across the UK are trying to spread awareness to change the language we use to describe a suicide. You can view the history of suicide in an interactive timeline here.

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Half of the people surveyed said they themselves had experienced suicidal thoughts but over a third of people said they wouldn’t know where to get help if they were feeling like they wanted to take their own life.

Additionally, over half of people didn’t feel they were educated enough about what causes a person to want to die and a resounding 85% said they want to see more education about emotional intelligence in schools.

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The survey asked if they would like to see more education in schools about mental health and suicide.

42 of the 78 people surveyed said they knew someone who had died by suicide.

Then came the biggest results for the investigation as over three-quarters of the people surveyed believe there is a stigma around suicide and suicide bereavement in our society.

screenshot-27Only 3% of people said they thought families bereaved by suicide were given enough support, as most said they thought they weren’t (62%)  and over a third of people didn’t know (35%).

The survey was conducted using the website surveymonkey.co.uk and you can still fill out the survey here.

If you need help, there are several charities that can be there for you. Click here to find out who they are and how to get in touch with them.

You can also follow the investigation on Twitter and on Facebook.