Long Reads

Russell Brand is right – we need to talk more openly about suicide

Russell Brand has written a moving tribute to Caroline Flack, talking about suicide and ‘ordinariness’. To view suicide through the lens of ordinariness doesn’t diminish it – instead, it reminds us that we are all human and all vulnerable.

Using the words ‘suicide’ and ‘ordinariness’ in the same sentence feels counter-intuitive.

With its devastating rejection of our most vital instincts, suicide seems far from ordinary. To borrow author Matt Haig’s description, suicide is usually “the final symptom” of depression, a “collapse under unbearable weight”. It is tragic, brutal and mind-bending in its terminality.

We were all reminded of that this week when Caroline Flack – a smart, successful 40-year-old woman exuding vivaciousness and energy – felt she had no other option than to end her own life, following relentless vilification by the press. Hearing this sad and senseless story, ‘ordinary’ is the word furthest from our minds.

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Yet, the bonds between suicide and ordinariness are inextricable and important. In late 2019, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed suicide rates had risen sharply to their highest level since 2002. There were 6,507 suicides in the UK, an increase of 11.8% on the previous year. 

For British men, suicide remains the single biggest killer of under-45s. In short, suicide is an everyday killer and it does not discriminate.

suicide-prevention
Suicide rates have risen sharply to their highest level since 2002.

I first thought about ordinariness and suicide in college, when my mum took her own life. Mum had no history of mental illness and nothing could have equipped us for the ferocity of her nervous breakdown, which ripped through our lives like an invisible cyclone. In six agonising months, I saw the strong, confident woman I knew be pulled in on herself by some dark inner turmoil.

Later, when I read the fears scribbled in mum’s notes and diaries – about a recent family bereavement, failure, money, and me growing up – they seemed too ‘ordinary’ to have spiralled into suicide. Her death was devastating, therefore it needed to be pinned to something extraordinary.

It was 2004 and public conversations around mental health were nothing compared with those we have today. In my teenage mind, suicide didn’t happen to ordinary people in ordinary families. I was convinced I’d failed to recognise some hidden agony in mum, a trauma I didn’t know about, an event I hadn’t witnessed. 

mj-and-mum
A young Mary-Jane with her mum.

I recalled those feelings when I read Russell Brand’s moving tribute to Caroline Flack, who he describes as “a dynamo” left “drained of hope by her circumstances”. In his essay, the author-activist writes about the ordinariness of the thoughts and events that lead people to take their own lives.

Gathering excerpts from notes, blogs and emails for a verbatim piece made up of the last written words of people who died by suicide, Brand became aware of “a familiar resonance throughout these varied pieces, a common tune in the expression of these distinct people; it was ‘ordinariness’.”

The thoughts and feelings – among them “I don’t feel good enough”, “I’m lonely”, “I’m worthless”, “I’m scared I’m in too much debt”, “I’m scared I’ve hurt too many people”, “I’m unloveable” – are ones that most of us have had at one time or another.

Brand writes: “The line then that separates people who kill themselves and people that don’t is vague and uncertain, it is a line within each of us, not between us.”

To look at suicide through the lens of ordinariness and the minutiae of everyday worries doesn’t diminish it. Instead, it reminds us that we are all human and all vulnerable. When Brand talks about the “line within each of us”, it emphasises the cumulative effect that seemingly ordinary feelings and events can have on even the most outwardly robust people.

Talking about suicide in the context of the ordinary takes away its otherness. It asks us to confront reality and examine our common experiences. It sharpens our awareness of everyday rituals, from the power of a passing comment to the difference we make by filling our daily interactions with compassion and kindness.

Brand writes that he “admires the optimism” of petitions to regulate the clickbait journalism and tabloid vitriol that plagued Flack’s career, but points to a greater collective responsibility moving forward.

“All culture, all values pass through the consciousness of individuals and collectives,” he says. “If we want the world to change, for less people to die in pain and shame then we should pause before we next vent a pleasurable stab of vindictive judgement or jeering condemnation.”

suicide-awareness
“We are all vulnerable in our ordinary humanity. We are all deserving of kindness.”

Suicide doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is the final discord in a crescendo of pain. It is the result of numerous moments, words, encounters, thoughts and experiences, any one of which could have played out differently. This sense of the manifold, of multiple paths with alternate outcomes, is just one of the lingering sorrows that suicide leaves in its wake.

As Matt Haig says: “Stay alive for the people you will become. You are more than a bad day or year. You are a future of multifarious possibility.

“You are another self at a point in future time, looking back in gratitude that this lost and former you held on. You are not just this you. Stay.”

To repeat, forever: the line is within each of us, not between us.

We are all vulnerable in our ordinary humanity. We are all deserving of kindness. 

For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.

Images: Getty, Unsplash, courtesy of author