As part of Edinburgh Book Festival’s Staying Well series of events, Stepping Away From The Edge looks at the issues of depression and suicide and how we can better support those who need it. Over 90% of people who commit suicide have mental health issues, primarily depression, but under 5% of people with depression are in that number. The amount of people battling this illness are vast.
Each member of the event talks about their own experience. First, Debi Gliori, writer and illustrator, shows her illustrations of her depression with the metaphor of a dragon. The images are striking and horrible all at once; they’re so well done but impart so much of the experience without words.
“I found illustration the easiest way to talk about the subject,” she begins. “As a children’s author you’re expected to be happy and bouncy, but it can be hard to say I’m not like that. I lost the ability to talk about [depression] when I was in it, but I have pictures. It’s a place I don’t want to go back to, but I probably will.”
“Sometimes pictures say things words fail to do,” she adds. “The darkest things you’ll ever encounter come from the depths of your own mind. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as what your mind can throw at you. Little by little, bit by bit, something was shifting inside me. I stopped feeling myself, I was not quite right.
“Everything familiar to me became quite hostile. I was worried everyone thought I was an idiot. I couldn’t express myself anymore. I looked in a mirror and didn’t recognise who I was. I couldn’t work anymore. I tried to pull the pictures out my head. The pictures had gone.”
She began running at one point, and “a bit of contrast was coming into my life. It wasn’t grey anymore.” It helped reframe the narrative of her life and see it as something bigger, start to see things differently.
Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive picks up from Debi’s illustrations. “To have a visual form to articulate it is incredible,” he says. “Things no one can see have judgements on them. It’s so important and helpful for people with depression to use imagination, to articulate it because so many people don’t understand it.”
“I was ill,” he continues, moving to his own story. “I suffered quite out of the blue. In hindsight, there were signs but I wasn’t paying attention to those.” The day he first became ill it was about 11am, and his heart started to beat very fast. “I instantly thought I was going to die.” There was a heavy panic and sense of dread. People picture panic attacks as needing the brown paper bag. “I always panicked about something, but without something it was terrifying. It was a new horrible reality that I didn’t realise was depression.”
“I thought no human on earth had ever felt like this.” He fantasised and willed himself to throw him off nearby cliffs, and resented the fact he had people he would hurt by doing so; he’d think “You don’t know what I’m feeling.”
“It took a long time to realise these thoughts were symptoms, not reality. If you don’t recognise it and don’t know what to do, you feel quite trapped.” The biggest cliché is that time heals everything and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but time proves depression wrong.
Rory O’Connor is from the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab and seeks to shed some light on the scientific understanding of the suicidal mind. “The big question,” he begins. Two people experience all the same stuff, both are depressed: one person takes their life, one doesn’t. How do we understand that difference?
The other big question he faces is a simple: “Why?” It’s complex, there are several factors: mental health, social, culture, trauma, negative life events.
“Look at how an individual views the world,” he continues. “It’s psychological, in that a person makes a decision.”
There’s a co-presence of feeling defeated and humiliated “that you cannot escape”. It’s a feeling of entrapment, both internal (eg, pain) and external (eg, job, relationship). The way you think about the future, positive or negative, is a good indicator of risk. “Ask what people look forward to after their attempt.” Having negative thoughts is not an indicator, but an inability to see positive ones can be. But positive is not always good longer term, because not achieving these things causes further entrapment. He ends by displaying the text of one suicide note to show at least one person’s feelings at the time. “Start and continue the dialogue so fewer of these notes are written.”
The questions delve into various areas of depression and suicide, with many directed at Rory to better understand the research and current standing there. One questions: what’s the best way to understand and help? ”I think we should feel free to talk about it however we want,” says Matt. “People often worry about being PC. Have an open conversation, look at why they’re saying something. People need to understand depression isn’t emotional – the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, it’s wellness. People kill themselves for having it.”
It’s a conversation of vital importance. These events are often attended by those with personal experiences related to this, or others interested because of someone they know. This needs to be a global concern for health, reaching to everyone, where the stigmas are broken, and mental health is not separated from the physical. This event was excellent for the topic at hand, but on occasion there’s a sense of frustration that peaks up that it still remains just a conversation, and may likely continue to be for quite some time while people continue to suffer.