For those with dark thoughts, talking could be a step towards the light

Alastair Sharp says talking about our feelings of despair may aid healing, and a listening ear is available for people with suicidal thoughts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 4:18am

Celebrity suicides inevitably get a lot of publicity. The actor-singer Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing's suicide in 2003 caused anguish among his many fans. The recent suicide attempts by British actor and writer Stephen Fry and Michael Jackson's daughter, Paris, may have shocked close friends and family who may not have realised how serious their problems were.

Fry, unusually, went public with an explanation about his lifelong battle with depression. He said he was able to wear a psychological mask to disguise his true feelings. When asked why he had tried to kill himself, he said "Why?" is the wrong question. "There's no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn't take their own life."

Why didn't Fry ask his many friends and family for help? His explanation was simply that his desperation was not something he could talk about with people he knew. Did he feel they would judge him? Of course. Was he fearful of their advice? Probably.

Suicidal feelings are immensely difficult to talk about. Distress which may have its roots in loneliness, physical illness, divorce, financial problems, family break-up, abuse, or in mental health issues, can be very hard to talk about with people you know well.

Counselling and psychotherapy use various types of "talk therapy", some of which have become familiar in popular culture. They recognise the value of exploring feelings as part of the process of helping and seeking solutions to distress.

Of course, talking through the emotional distress may not be enough. But for some people, the opportunity to say things that you cannot say to your friends and family can be cathartic. Hong Kong offers a number of suicide prevention telephone hotlines, including The Samaritans (multilingual service), Suicide Prevention Services (in Chinese) and The Samaritan Befrienders (in Chinese), which people can call in times of distress.

Suicidal feelings are something no one wants to admit to. But the need to talk, the telling itself, is the way back to reconnecting and recovery. Distressed people need to be listened to.

It isn't easy to prove suicide prevention hotlines actually work. However, a number of studies have looked into the issue. Psychiatrist Madelyn Gould and her colleagues in the US asked over 1,000 people about the effects of their call. Significant decreases in callers' crisis states and hopelessness were reported during the course of the phone session, with continuing decreases in the following weeks.

Perhaps it is the anonymity and the confidentiality that is helpful. Callers to helplines are in complete control, unlike in face-to-face counselling; a caller need only put down the phone to end the session.

The Mental Health Association of Hong Kong recently surveyed 3,269 residents above the age of 18. Nearly one in 10 said they had contemplated suicide and a similar number admitted they were depressed. A stressful lifestyle, with constant work and family pressures, can lead to despair, even though this may not necessarily result in suicidal thoughts.

People in despair may not know where to turn, or who to talk to. But talking may be the first step in recovery.

Alastair Sharp is deputy director of the Samaritans Multilingual Suicide Prevention Service