The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

The Suicide Myth

I would imagine that most people who follow football, pretty much all of Wales, and most people who know of him, have been deeply saddened today by the death of Gary Speed – but also incredibly shocked that someone who appeared to have so much would take their own life. It is still far too early to know any possible reasons for it, but the big question on the mind of many people is ‘why?’
However, it also links to a story in the press at the weekend which some people may not have seen – that of Stan Collymore, an ex-footballer and now successful radio commentator/talkshow host who has battled with depression for many years and who has written about the episode of depression that he is currently going through. It was when Collymore couldn’t play because of depression that his then manager, John Gregory, famously said ‘he is earning 20k per week to play football – what has he got to be depressed about?’. I’m sure John Gregory regrets those comments now, but it was certainly a prevalent attitude at the time (1999) that people with fame/fortume/success couldn’t possibly suffer from depression as they had everything they needed to ‘buy’ happiness.
I wonder if that attitude has really changed that much – yes, we know far more about it and the stigma is very slowly being eroded (whether it ever will be completely and whether it eroded at all for some people is another matter). However, even in 2006 Marcus Trescothick was forced to withdraw from the England cricket team on a tour of India because of depression, and this led some people to question his ‘mental toughness to compete’ (Trescothick has written a fascinating book on the topic, and this article gives a good insight into it http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/jun/21/marcus-trescothick-interview).

It is as if we find it hard to equate successful people with depression or the feelings of despair that can lead to suicide – after all, what have they got to worry about compared to the rest of us?
In contrast, it is only too easy for us to use futility explanations to explain suicide at the other end of the spectrum. I live in the Bridgend valleys and over the last few years we have had a spate of suicides that have often hit the national news. These seem far more explainable – young, living in an economically disadvantaged area, bleak prospects – even if those things aren’t true of the individuals involved, it fits better with our schemas of the type of person who would think about committing suicide.

But it doesn’t work like that – yes, people in those sorts of situations are more likely to feel the pressures and possibly see suicide as a way out, but it doesn’t mean that there is a cause and effect link with wealth and success. The stresses of our jobs and lives, the need to love and have this reciprocated, these things don’t necessarily come with a pricetag attached. And when it comes to depression – the brain’s chemicals have no notion of the concepts of fame and fortune, they don’t care, they will plunge that person into a pit of despair regardless of how famous they are.

What can psychology/counselling/ pharmacology etc., do about all of this? It is actually quite a tricky question – we have to educate society on these issues without falling into the trap of making it look as if we are mollycoddling all and sundry and trying to pretend the world can be a perfect place (I know quite a few people who have a view of psychology and counselling as being this); we have to recognise the treatments required for different things, whether this be psychological or pharmacological, and apply them properly instead of trying a one-size-fits-all regime of whatever the latest fad is. Counselling for those who need it, pharmacology for those who need it.
Most of all, we need to end the stigma of asking for help – whether it be help from the soul-destroying darkness of depression, or help when someone says ‘things are going wrong and I can’t see a way out other than this’. We need to show that it isn’t a ‘mental weakness’; they didn’t make them ‘tougher in the old days’; it doesn’t make you ‘less of a man’ (from the male perspective there).
When you need help you need help – and that is largely irrespective of money, fame, success, or pretty much anything else.

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2 Responses »

  1. I think some times fame, and or wealth can exacerbate depression and feelings of hopelessness. Much research has highlighted this. After a certain point, increased wealth has a detrimental effect on happiness. Probably linked to social isolation (an inability to keep running the hedonic treadmill); when your the one every one else looks to and wants to be like, where do you go for help?
    It would be nice if there were no need for counsellors or therapists. But, in my opinion one of their main functions is to plug the gaps created by a socially fragmented society. Too much inequality or too many hours spent in work, break down of family ties … well you know the story. We’re a culture of extremes; too much money not enough time or too much time not enough money.
    Having said this I don’t subscribe to the view that everything was all tea and biscuits in the past. Suffering has always been an inherent part of the human condition (mentally as well as physically). Maybe the role of psychology / counselling isn’t to take that away but to support people as it happens. We should talk more about what it feels like to be depressed, there seems to be a push to always reduce depression to a percentage.

    • I agree with most of what you say Steve, probably apart from psychology/counselling being more than tea and biscuits in the past/present – I think many people still have that view of psychology (that and that we spend all of the rest of our time chasing serial killers!), but once we get involved in it we tend to forget the lay ideas of psychology.
      When people from outside the profession meet me and then later find out what I do I am often met with ‘how can you be a psychologist?!’ – people hear the term and expect me to be all warm, cuddly, caring and understanding (which, as you all know, I am really but have a very good way of hiding it beneath a healthy layer of cynicism and scepticism!). I also remember a case where I was recruiting participants for a study from another department at a university which shall remain nameless – as I sat in their cafeteria with a sign next to me asking for volunteers I would be approached by students interested in the study, only for one of their academic staff to pounce upon the students with cries of ‘don’t do it, they’ll drug you and pump you full of truth gas and do horrible things to you’ (I’m not making this up!) – I thought they were joking at first, but they were actually serious, they tried to have me removed from their department. For all of their knowledge (this person held a PhD) they had no notion of what we do as experimental psychologists, and so were working on assumptions from whatever film/TV programme/book they had gained their knowledge of psychology from.
      And that is what many people do… it isn’t that different from how people get information about many things, but with an important caveat – we deal with issues that many people don’t want to deal with, and so it is far better to ignore it. Depression, dementia, and other things that can pretty much hit anyone aren’t things that people like talking about for that very reason – it hits too close to home. It could be you, me, or the people we love who it happens to, and that removes the very element of control that we spend so much of our lives cultivating.

      As for the issue of fame/wealth exacerbating depresssion, I think that may well be the case – but the perception of how and why will still be pretty alien to the majority who will never find themselves in those positions of fame and wealth to find out for themselves. I wrote in another post on here about how happy I was just from eating a burger and having a beer in the garden – maybe that means that I’m the lucky one in that I can recognise simple things that make me happy instead of bemoaning the fact that I’m not eating that burger on a Caribbean beach! But even at my level (by no means famous or wealthy, but doing ok and in a position that some others would like to be in) I still have many periods of stress and feelings of responsibility – those things never go away. I don’t think I can ever remember a time in any job/period of study when I wasn’t under stress of some sort – it is what makes me appreciate the times when I relax. I wonder if I would talk to anyone if I got too stressed? To be honest, I don’t know.

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