Slipping away on the ebb tide: Suicide and men beyond 50

My friend Bob is a psychotherapist in Wales.  He was visiting me for the weekend when he got a text from Davey, one of his clients.  It read, ‘My kids r ok, but can c no reason 2 carry on.  Wd love to slip away on the ebb tide, noone would notice.  Davey’.  Davey is a man of 63, who had retired from Cardiff with his wife two years ago, to a dream retirement home in remote rural Pembrokeshire.  His wife died very unexpectedly eight months ago.

Bob and I sat at the breakfast table, shocked and sad, feeling deeply for this man many hours away from us.  What could we say or do?  Is suicide sometimes the right answer?

Twenty years ago, suicide rates were alarmingly high among young men aged 18 – 30.  This has dropped, but in the past ten years suicide rates have risen among older men aged 40 – 60.  The highest suicide rate in any age group is men over 75.

This issue has a deep resonance for me: my father’s father took his life at the age of 56: his two sons, who found him, disguised things so it looked like an accident, and their mother never knew what really happened.  My father suffered from periods of depression and anxiety throughout his adult life, until his seventies, and I used to worry whether one day I would find him gone.

I asked Bob, “What are you going to say to him?”  Bob read out his text to me as he keyed it in: ‘Away, can’t meet up 4 a few days.  I know this urge will arise.  I’d like u not to slip off on the ebb tide.  I and others enjoy u so much.’  It was a huge relief to receive another text from Davey, a few minutes later: ‘I imagine u here talking with me, it’s a great help.  Won’t do anything to end it.  C u soon.’

I asked Bob if Davey was an unusual case, and he said no: Bob’s experience fits the national picture, with increasing numbers of maturing men committing suicide, and increasing numbers of clients in this group seeking help.  This is true in rural areas as well as cities, and with manual jobs such as farmers.

Whilst I had known about the statistics, this episode made it all real and immediate.  Pooling Bob’s experience of what worked with clients, and some of the ideas in my book, we came up with a few pointers to offer to men feeling suicidal, and the people around them.  For those around them, our key advice is focus on this man’s feelings, and your feelings for him.  Don’t urge him to stay around because suicide would upset his kids, colleagues and others.  Most men have been burdened with calls to guilt and duty since they were boys, and this approach could drag them further down.

For the man himself, we would say:

  • Just focus on the present moment, this day: make the best of this day, find what you can appreciate in it.
  • Don’t always trust your thinking, it may be unreliable, it’s probably too negative, and could lead you to decisions you’d regret: things will probably look different later.
  • Don’t go into the future: if you feel awful now, you risk imagining it will be awful forever.
  • Find a way of giving out to others: even if it is a small action, it can help them and it will help you.
  • Look for new things you will enjoy, here and now.
  • Be compassionate with yourself – take time to feel your sadness, anger, without having to act on them.
  • Find someone you can talk to for support: a close friend, if you have one who can handle this, or a counsellor or therapist.
  • You may hate yourself, feel angry or ashamed and want to punish yourself.  Give yourself a break, be kind to yourself, at least for today.
  • You probably feel that something in you has died, but don’t confuse that with feeling your whole life has to go.
  • Accept that suicide is an option for you, but don’t do it on impulse, really consider it carefully.
  • Find some meaning in your day, no matter how small: you may like to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, who writes of finding optimism even in tragedy.

If you are feeling suicidal right now, try one of these:

  1. Contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or visit http://www.samaritans.org/
  2. Contact MIND, the leading mental health charity in the UK and read this page
  3. Take a look at the website of Befrienders, particularly the page about suicidal feelings

The names and details of this true story have been disguised to protect confidentiality.

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