Dear People who didn’t know what to do.

At 10yo, my family splintered. I was lonely; isolated. The perfect target for a paedophilic man. I was 12yo when my inner world exploded. Feelings of self-disgust, worthlessness, loneliness, guilt, shame, abandonment, betrayal, and self-hatred became my new inner world.

I was 16yo when the cracks appeared; before my inner world began to leak out. I started self-harming at 16. On my 18th birthday I tried to end my life for the first time. I could see no other way to end the pain that engulfed me. Over the next 30 years I encountered people who turned away from me because I had attempted suicide. I encountered health professionals who spoke to me in unhelpful ways – “Are you going to try something stupid like this again” (following a suicide attempt, in an effort to determine if he needed to do more than patch me up and send me on my way).

I encountered people who mocked me, ridiculed me, told me to “pull myself together”, walked away from me, looked down on me, treated me like I was intellectually impaired, used my suicidal behaviour against me. And I continued to self-harm and attempt suicide over those 30 years.

What I needed, Dear People, was for someone to look at me and speak to me like I was a human being who was in excruciating pain. What I needed, Dear People, was for someone to ask me if I was okay. What I needed, Dear People, was for someone to hold out their hand and let me know I wasn’t alone. What I needed, Dear People, was to feel safe and cared for. Not ostracism, or experts, or drugs, or hospital. Just some human compassion. It is as simple as that.

Appearances matter (to some).

There have been many things my lived experience has taught me but I want to share with you one thing in particular. Let me start with a story.

After spending my early 20s battling with suicidality, I finally found myself on a career path I was happy with. I obtained an entry level position after a career change that meant I once again had to start from the bottom and work upwards. I was 29 years old and had more than 10 years work experience behind me, as well as a new university degree which I obtained as a mature aged student. I was a very competent employee and had achieved much in the last 10 years. Despite this, I was now a junior, female employee with a young, hopeful face.

In a discussion with an older male senior executive, I excused myself from the conversation on the basis I had to get home to make dinner for the kids. He looked surprised and stated “you look too young to have kids”. That statement told me a lot about why I was having trouble securing a promotion from this man, despite my (I thought) obvious competence. I had been stereotyped and put in a box of being young and naive.

In that same work team, a female colleague had seen the expertise I possessed about suicide prevention. She had gotten to know me and my insights and experience. I became a key partner on a research project looking at rates of self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children. She advocated for my career progression because she didn’t take me at face value and saw my talents.

There are plenty of other examples of times that I have been assumed to have a certain skillset based on my lived experience of suicide. When I first became involved in using my lived experience for suicide prevention, I made sure to keep my professional life separate from my advocacy life because of the way that I was treated when I identified as having a lived experience of suicide. I believe that it was even more compounded by the experience I had of surviving a suicide attempt and experiencing suicidal thoughts, as people saw me as possibly volatile and sensitive. Or maybe that was what I believed.

There are some people who are very uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. Simply bringing up the topic can be a barrier to having a deeper conversation. Over dinner one night, I was having an intimate discussion with a couple that were involved in the same interest group that I was involved in. Neither of the pair knew about my lived experience or advocacy work. I mentioned that on the weekend I had study to complete and was asked about the course I was doing. I spoke about the Master of Suicidology I was completing and how the assessment was based on cultural understandings of suicide and suicidal behaviour. There were some gasps and grimaces and then the conversation fell flat until the topic of conversation changed.

This is where appearances can get in the way of getting to know someone and celebrating their talents, interests or motivations. I see that there are three things at play here, in both of these examples. Firstly, as in the case of the senior executive at work, it is easier to assume things about a person than to spend the time getting to know them. Secondly, fear can get in the way of maximising strengths and recognising expertise and thirdly, suicide is an uncomfortable, fear inducing and inconvenient topic. It is the first that stops us understanding and connecting with others and the second two that perpetuate the negative attitudes and beliefs about experiences of suicide.

Through my experience as a suicide prevention advocate, I have found the strength to talk about suicide despite it making even me feel uncomfortable and people are grateful for it. For every conversation like the one I had at dinner, there are five more that appreciate me having the courage to talk about suicide. People just don’t get the chance to talk about it very much and when you give them permission to do so, it is a great relief and comfort. There has never been a time where I have shared my story and someone has not come up to me afterwards and said a personal thank you.

By having the courage to talk about suicide, you make it ok for others to do the same. When we openly talk about suicide, we increase our understanding and make it a little less scary. Yes, those who have thoughts of suicide can be sensitive and volatile. I never know when my mood will plummet and I will find myself thinking of suicide. But those who have thoughts of suicide are also extremely resilient and stubborn in the face of challenges. By saying “not today” to suicide and living to see another day, those people show extreme strength and that should be recognised and celebrated. If we change the way we talk about suicide, we change the way we think about suicide and those first impressions change from one of fear and discomfort to one of celebration and admiration. Imagine if your first thought about someone who had been suicidal was “oh, you must have some pretty solid self-care strategies” or “wow, tell me what else you are good at” instead of “are you ok? Do you need help?”.

We all have a responsibility for both sides of this coin. When you meet someone or when you work with someone, don’t assume, ask. Get to know the people you come across in your day to day life and share stories that enable connection and understanding. Storytelling is as old as humanity, it is how we pass on knowledge, inspire others and basically get anything done in society. Take the time to talk to others and break down those stereotypes. Try hard to remove judgement and listen to others openly and earnestly. I promise that you will grow and be a better person for it.

On the other hand, if you have a lived experience of suicide, don’t let those first impressions tell you who you are and what your value is. You have the choice to dismiss those impressions, those comments and those reactions and to listen to those that celebrate you. It takes courage to be open about your suicide experiences, whether you have been suicidal, supported someone who has been suicidal or been bereaved by suicide. But I believe that you have what it takes to change these impressions and encourage people to see who you really are, instead of who they think you are. You are valuable and you bring so much to the community.

Hayley Purdon

I look back 11 months ago, and I don’t even recognise the person I was back then.

I was empty, I was numb, and I had no desire to receive any help because my thoughts took over.

The disappointment I felt when I woke up in hospital for the third time and realising I was still alive, was horrible. I knew how much I was hurting my family and my friends, I just didn’t have the emotional capacity to care. I was drained, and I completely isolated myself from all my support networks. 

When looking back at it now, surviving was the best thing to have happened. Not just surviving the attempts, but the depression itself. When you’re drowning in your own thoughts, it consumes you. I remember in my darkest times, seeing people’s stories on how they overcame depression and thinking “that doesn’t apply to me”. Yet here I am, writing one myself.

You don’t wake up one day and you’re better. With therapy and discovery, you will start to heal and manage your thoughts. I learnt my depression is a ‘part’ of me, it’s not my entirety. If there is one thing I can suggest, it’s learning about your inner child, and writing an emergency plan that you can stick to when you feel your darkest. I know if you don’t want help, it seems pointless; but trust me when I say it’s not. Simple things like cleaning, getting in the shower, or doing a crossword, make the world of difference just to buy some more time until you’re in a better place. Get curious about yourself, you can find a lot of peace in there.