World Suicide Prevention Day is on September 10, 2011. The official Australian web-site for this event is www.wspd.org.au.
Suicide is a difficult topic for many people to talk about at the best of times. Perhaps you’ve thought about attempting suicide, or have actually attempted it yourself. Or you may know someone who has, either to completion or not. Many issues drive people to suicide, and often it’s related to a state of depression or a mental health issue.
Some people don’t know who to turn to for help, or how to ask for help, or they don’t realise they can ask for help. Sometimes in the depth of a depressive state of mind people don’t want to ask for help because they believe their burden is too difficult or that they believe there is no way to escape from it. All this and more.
In some dark moments I experienced a little while back, when life seemed all too hard, I thought about suicide on a couple of occasions. I knew my thought processes weren’t rational at the time but it seemed the easiest way to escape the torment of my feelings. Fortunately for me, and those around me, I cleared those momentary hurdles in my life, sought professional help and soon found myself in a much better state of mind. What scared me most was that these suicidal occasions sneaked up on me, with no warning, when I was alone, driving in my car, in a particularly vulnerable and dangerous state. They went as quickly as they came.
Many years ago I overcame a significant challenge in my life. At the age of 26, on September 13 1995, I came to the realisation that my feelings of physical attraction to men were something I could not escape, and that no matter how hard I had tried over the years to repress these homosexual feelings, they wouldn’t go away. It dawned on me that in fact this was something I should embrace, and enjoy, rather than fight and hide. And so I found that I was no longer scared of the word ‘gay’, and realised that it was something I could identify with being.
I had previously been scared that if people had found out my attraction to men that I would be kicked out of home and that my friends wouldn’t want to know me. In fact these were completely irrational thoughts, and aside from having moved out of home a few months prior, my parents told me that they would have never kicked me out of home because of my sexuality and my friends all told me that it was ok with me being gay. Some said they had thought so, others said it came as a complete surprise. Only one friend told me he disagreed with what being gay was about but he has since grown up and has overcome that obstacle in his psyche.
What I had needed most was an understanding that whatever my sexuality was I would be accepted unconditionally by my parents. They never gave me that message and so I never knew where I stood with them on the issue. I didn’t have the courage to ask them and they didn’t have the language to broach the topic with me. It wasn’t something they were educated in. Now, it’s a different story. They are great advocates for equality and acceptance of people from varying sexual orientations. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or anything else doesn’t phase them, and they are comfortable to talk about it.
It’s this conversation that I wish they had had with me when I was very young. I wish they had told me about boys loving boys and girls loving girls, as well as boys and girls loving each other, from when I was aged 4 and up. If I had known that when I was ten and found myself feeling attractions to boys in my school that it was a normal thing to happen, I wouldn’t have started repressing these feelings. Maybe I could have told them that there was one boy at school I had a crush on, or that whilst I didn’t have certain feelings for girls, I did have them for boys.
I didn’t know that it was ok to like boys when I was young and going through puberty it because increasingly harder to conform to the expectations that sexually I should be liking girls, yet finding boys most prominent in my sexual fantasies. And through my teens and into my twenties this became more and more polarised, with no attraction to women and exclusive attraction to men. I stifled these feelings outwardly, not knowing who I could turn to about them. I wanted my psychologists to ask me about that aspect of my life but either because they were too respectful of my privacy or simply because I didn’t lead them in the right direction, they never raised the issue with me, over the many years I sought counselling.
This stifling of my feelings also stifled my existence and I was suffering anxiety attacks, feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and generally not liking myself. Yet once I had “come out” (I believe it was a stage of emotional maturity where many things in my life started coming together, one of them being acceptance of my sexuality), this all turned around. I was able to open up my emotions, release that person who had been so desperately trying to escape for the best part of 16 years, and begin enjoying life. I discovered, almost overnight, a new me. A new Michael who could go through a day and realise that the world had so much to offer, that there was excitement and adventure around every corner, and that no matter what anyone thought of me or who I liked, things were just great. I was abuzz, abounding with life, and joy, and happiness. It was good to be gay and that I wished I had been able to come to terms with these feelings so many years earlier. So many years had been wasted, not knowing what to say or do. I had no role models to look up to, to tell me it was ok to be gay. I had to wait until I had worked that out myself.
Actually my brother might have been this person to me. He had asked me, numerous times over the years, if I was gay. But I wasn’t gay. I didn’t identify with that word that he used and so it was right of me to tell him that I wasn’t gay, even though I knew I had homosexual attractions. If I had been able to talk to him about it maybe things might have been easier for me, but I simply couldn’t bring the two concepts together in my head. One was physical, the other psychological, a state of mind perhaps. It took me a long time before I was able to reconcile my homosexuality with being gay. I haven’t looked back since.
For many people though, they face other challenges in their struggle for acceptance with having same-sex attractions. There are religious and cultural pressures to conform to a heterosexual norm and these burdens can be extremely hard to overcome. I grew up in a Jewish household, yet my family was not very religious. However in many other Jewish households there is a very present understanding that homosexuality is unacceptable, because of religious teachings. It’s actually more insidious than that. It’s like an undercurrent of intolerance that is self-perpetuating. The whole issue is completely taboo and any mention of it in a positive connotation is completely impossible.
The disturbing aspect of this is that for young people growing up in this ultra-conservative religious environment there is almost no way they can access the resources, help or role models to tell them that despite the attitudes of their community they are normal people with healthy feelings. Because of this, there begins the down-hill spiral similar to what I experienced growing up, the repression, the denial, the avoidance, and so on. It gets worse and becomes a festering cancer that just eats away every last drop of happiness in a person.
Some people get to the point in their life where they feel there is no easy way out of this conflict, perhaps after getting into a loveless marriage, maybe with having children, and begin to consider suicide as a possible way to deal with their situation. I was fortunate I didn’t get to that point in my struggle to deal with my sexuality, but it could have happened. Others are less fortunate and do succumb to the temptation to take their life. More people fail than succeed in attempting suicide, perhaps leaving them in a harmed state physically, definitely emotionally, and perhaps leaving them further motivated to end their life.
Rabbi Mendel Kastel of the Jewish House in Sydney has told me, from his enquiries of the Sydney Chevrah Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society), that there is an average of about one suicide per month. It’s not always possible to determine that the cause of a death was due to suicide, which makes it hard to get concrete statistics unfortunately. I am not aware of any figures for the rate of suicide in the Melbourne Jewish community but I would take a guess that they’d be similar, due to the similar sizes of the two communities.
It alarmed me to hear that there was about one suicide a month in the Sydney Jewish community. That’s twelve deaths per year that could potentially have been avoided. Perhaps one of these twelve people was someone you knew, either a friend or close relative. They were important to someone, and chances are they left a huge void in their community.
In addition to these rudimentary figures of Jewish suicides, there are alarming statistics published by Suicide Prevention Australia. Their Positional Statement on Suicide and Self-harm among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Communities claims:
Studies conducted over the last decade reveal that GLB individuals attempt suicide at rates between 3.5 and 14 times those of their heterosexual peers (Bagley & Tremblay, 1997; Garofalo et al., 1998; Herrell et al., 1999; National Institute for Mental Health in England, 2007; Nicholas & Howard, 2002; Remafedi et al., 1998).
and further goes on to state:
Similarly those belonging to religious faiths that promulgate negative discourses about homosexuality are particularly vulnerable to suicide and self-harm. Conflicts between spiritual or religious beliefs and sexuality can result in significant psychological dissonance as well as division and exclusion from family, friends and community.
For many, these experiences manifest in deep feelings of self-loathing and hatred that, in turn, severely elevate the risk of suicide and self-harm (Hillier et al., 2008).
It’s time we all started taking an active interest in suicide prevention and started talking about it, because that one person could be someone you know and love. It could be your child, or your brother or sister, or a cousin, your best friend, a parent or it could be you.
Once a person is gone, it’s too late to offer acceptance. They won’t hear you once they’re dead. Tell them you love them unconditionally, no matter what, and mean it. There’s no acceptable price to pay for a belief in your religion, or because you are scared of rejection.
Someone will always love you and accept you, no matter what.
- If you are contemplating suicide or need someone to talk to, you can contact Lifeline.
- In Victoria and Tasmania, the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard has trained operators to assist with issues relating to sexuality.
- In NSW, The Jewish House offers a crisis counselling service.
- If you don’t know who to talk to, or for general issues relating to sexuality and gender identity, I will gladly forward your confidential enquiry to the appropriate organisation.
- On Saturday September 10, 2011 you can walk to raise awareness, remember those lost to suicide and unite in a commitment to prevent further deaths by suicide. Details on the Out of the shadows web-site.
- Thursday 15 September, 2011 is R U OK? Day. It’s a national day of action which aims to prevent suicide by encouraging Australians to connect with someone they care about and help stop little problems turning into big ones.