Poor Treatment of Suicide Survivors
By: Beth McHugh 2015
What’s worse than getting to the point where life is nothing more than an ongoing emotional hell that needs to end? It’s surviving a suicide attempt and being treated by so-called professional medical staff with contempt and irritation.
This is a situation that beggars belief, and yet it is being increasingly reported by survivors of suicide attempts. On the one hand, the general public are being encouraged to “embrace” mental illness as being real and beyond the sufferer’s control, just like the pain involved in any physical illnesses, which is accepted without censure. We are being asked to say to people “Are you ok?” in an attempt to encourage sufferers with a raft of mental illnesses to speak out and seek help.
But, how can the general public be expected to learn to let go of the stigma of mental illness when trained medial staff, including psychiatrists, treat mental patients who have attempted suicide with such disdain?
I have a colleague who is a social worker in a crisis mental health wing of a large public hospital. She once said to me that she was frustrated at having to deal with the people who came into her emergency unit. She asked me: “Don’t you just want to shake them?”
My answer was: “No, I just want to hug them, because that is the first thing they need.” I was appalled at her attitude to the suffering of mentally ill patients, yet here she was, a university qualified professional, with a thinking pattern that was not conducive to helping distressed people at all. Sadly this is no isolated case.
In-patients are reporting that hospital staff treat suicide survivors with anger and negativity, yet these are the very people who deserve love and care, not judgement. No hospital staff can ever know what drove a person to the point of suicide, but it certainly represents the end of hope and an overriding of the human survival system, which is so strong in all of us and is present from birth.
So we have a situation where there are concerted attempts to destigmatise mental illness, but in many cases, the worse offenders are the health professionals themselves. I have heard a psychiatrist tell a sufferer of PTSD that “any Vietnam vet who still has PTSD does not want to get better.” This doctor has never fought in a war himself, but only knew PTSD through a textbook and even then, did not have a firm grasp of the disorder. Stating the above not only displays his ignorance of the disorder but minimises and insults his patients.
For those who are unsuccessful in a suicide attempt, there is a lack
of understanding and compassion from both professionals and the community.
There are reports of patients being discharged within 24 hours with
no support services put in place, and in some instances, not even one
interview with a psychiatrist. This means that the underlying cause
for the suicide attempt was not even discussed and therefore the patient
was offered no chance to talk about what preceded the attempt or, most
importantly, what could be put in place to alleviate stressors to prevent
another attempt. Since it is well known among mental health professionals
that people who attempt suicide once are more likely to re-attempt if
circumstances do not change, this is appalling treatment of a patient.
I have written previous articles on suicide that there is a prevailing belief in the community that suicide is a selfish act. As prevalent as this belief might be, it is only a belief, and it is manifestly wrong. It’s looking at the situation from the viewpoint of a well person, who cannot understand why a person would want to take their own life, simply because they have never been in a position to feel that way. That does not mean a suicide victim is selfish, it means the negative commentator does not understand mental illness.
Many people believe a person is selfish in wanting to die because it affects the life of others. Yes, it does affect the lives of others, but it is also a selfish stance to put the feelings of others before the feelings of the person who has lost all hope and makes a suicide attempt. Why are the feelings of a clearly desperate person put behind those of the living? There is no question of selfishness, there is only a question of ongoing, relentless pain that just has to stop because it can be tolerated no longer.
And so we return to the actions and beliefs of mental health professionals. Certainly, there are many committed and compassionate workers in the field, but the evidence from patients themselves shows that these people are few and far between. The general consensus is that minimal help is given, and the patient is left to fend for themselves at a time when they clearly have reached the end of their coping skills.
With suicide rates on the increase, the prevailing attitude of hospital staff to survivors of suicide needs to be changed. To be treated as less important than a “real” patient as one client stated, is a disgrace. To be threatened with losing accommodation “if you try this again” shows an appalling lack of understanding and compassion. If Facebook petitions are anything to go by, we care more about one puppy that has been mistreated than we do about sufferers of mental illness in general. If sufferers are being encouraged to come out and talk about their experiences, it appears that very few actually want to listen.
People need to be aware that mental illness can take hold at any time – if you think you’re immune, think again. The statistics argue that any person reading this will have over a 90 % chance of directly experiencing mental illness at some time during the course of their lifetime, or will be significantly affected by the mental illnesses of others with whom they interact.
One only has to look at the case of Robin Williams – a truly
gifted and inspiring man – with money, magnificent homes, family
members, and people around him who would be more than happy to have
their photos snapped with him. But nothing could save Robin Williams,
and those who would condemn or belittle people who commit suicide, attempt
to commit suicide or have a mental illness, would do well to remember
this, instead of judging and turning away.