Dear Ms Frostrup,
My name is Ida Väisänen. I’m writing this blog post as a response to your column ‘Dear Mariella’, on the Guardian’s website which was titled ‘My husband recently killed himself and I can’t face being on my own’, published 20th of May 2018.
For context, I will copy in the exact question posted by a lady who had recently lost her husband to suicide.
“It’s only been a few weeks since my husband took his own life, but now the reality is starting to sink in and I feel completely overwhelmed by fear about what the future holds. I’m nearly 40, no children, and was with my husband since I was a teenager. He was my first real boyfriend and my best friend, and his death came as a complete shock. Aside from feeling immense guilt about his death, I was already anxious about living and ageing alone – and now I am living my greatest fear.
I don’t intend or want to be with someone else soon, but when I look online it seems that the odds of someone my age finding love again are unlikely at best. I can’t face the next few decades living alone. I try to see the positives, but my overriding thought is: “What’s the point?” I am struggling to see how life can be enjoyable again now that my husband and best friend is gone.
“I despair of how I can continue like this. Any words of comfort and/or support would be most welcome.”
With this being the exact wording of the request made by this recently widowed woman, you made the following statements:
- “Your husband was suffering from depression, an illness that impacts heavily on the people around.”
- “Taking your own life is an irrational, desperate, tragic act, but it’s also an extremely selfish choice. It’s rarely embarked on with mental clarity so it’s important to acknowledge the terrible legacy those left behind are lumbered with.”
These statements will be the key points I will be concentrating on within this blog post. You probably have not heard of me, so I will tell you a bit about my background.
I am an NCTJ-accredited journalist. I have also been a columnist for several years, not on a national level but first at a student- and then a local publication. I, like you, have been offered a platform by a publication to express my opinions to its readership.
I also have a diagnosis of depression but most importantly, I am also a formally suicidal person. Almost a year ago I tried to end my life by laying down on train tracks. I am one of the people who have been lucky enough to have come back from the brink.
Against this background I find both of your statements referred to above as insensitive, incorrect and in the case of the first one, unfounded.
Ms Frostrup, I have not been fortunate enough to be offered a platform by a national newspaper. Still never in any of the columns I have written have I diagnosed anyone with a medical condition. The reason for that is that I’m not a qualified medical professional. Even the most respected medical experts will hesitate making a diagnosis without viewing a person’s medical records and/or meeting the person in question.
Based on a second-person account of a single act, you still make the statement that this woman’s husband suffered from depression. Correct me if I’m wrong, but based on the question cited above, this woman was not writing to you to make an inquiry about her husband’s diagnosis. She was seeking words of support and comfort.
Furthermore, any medical professional will tell you that depression is not the only mental health condition which can lead to suicidal behaviour. Suicidal behaviour is a characteristic shared by a number of conditions. This is why making a diagnosis is a long process. In my case, a diagnosis of moderate depression was made after I spent nearly three months in hospital under constant specialised medical supervision. Where am I going with this?
You, like me, are unqualified to make the statement that this man was suffering from depression.
Ms Frostrup, I cannot fathom why you decided to make such a bold statement regarding this man’s mental health, a matter that is both highly private and highly sensitive, in a national publication. Was it because he is anonymous, so you could not be challenged on it by his widow or family?
Furthermore, I would like to refer to the way you proceed to describe suicide as an ‘extremely selfish choice.’ Again, this recently tragically widowed woman was not writing to you to ask about your opinion regards to the choice her husband made. She was struggling with her loss and finding herself alone, thinking whether she would ever be able to find love again. At no point did she ask what you thought of her husband’s suicide, or of suicide in general.
This is extremely insensitive towards the loss that this person has faced. She has the facts of the situation, you do not. You have no idea what the circumstances leading to her husband’s choice to end his life were. Neither do you know what was going through this man’s head when he made this choice. Only one person knows that, and he is not here to share his side of the story.
Neither do I. As a person who has tried to take her own life, I would like to say that the statement you made is insensitive, inaccurate and extremely prejudiced. When I tried to take my own life, it was after years of suffering from a mental illness which was at the time not diagnosed. It caused months of insomnia, where I woke up nine to twelve times a night, managing only ninety minutes of sleep on one go.
When I say insomnia, it meant months of crying into my pillow out of frustration after I would wake up that final time even though I was so desperately tired that the lack of sleep was making me physically ill. Trying out sleeping medications that didn’t work. Going on antidepressants which made me throw up everything I ate for the first two weeks. All of this while I was still in full-time employment.
I can’t be faulted for not telling anyone. Once I started experiencing suicidal thoughts, I went to a GP and got antidepressants, which usually about four to six weeks to work. Can you image what four to six weeks sounds like when every single moment of every single day is both mental and physical torture?
I began trying to control the uncontrollable by self-harming. This was also a desperate cry for help, for someone to see how unwell I was. However, I did not have a proper support network in place. The GP who prescribed me the antidepressants did not tell me to come back until a month later, even though I had explained I was experiencing suicidal thoughts. A crisis team number was given to me only after the person in question in said: ‘But you can only call when it’s an emergency.’
For that month I was completely alone, trying to cling onto the promise offered by the antidepressants but it’s a long day when you wake up alone at 3am. After many of these nights, after many days I was almost delirious from the lack of sleep, my every waking- and non-waking moment overpowered by a sense of hopelessness, I finally had enough. The antidepressants were not working. Or not working quickly enough. The GP had made me feel like I was not ill enough, and I felt embarrassed and humiliated. Nobody was able to help me.
But one option was still available, which I knew was going to end my suffering.
My parents live in Finland, so I made sure I would have all my personal documents and their phone numbers with me. I would leave them in my handbag nearby so that my mum and dad could be contacted. There would not be much left of me after an embrace with a moving train, so my passport and their contact details would ease the investigation.
I chose a method where I would be immediately found to save my family from days of growing concern thousands of miles away. I packed my belongings to save them from doing it. I wrote a note to save them from asking why. In return I had to believe that they would love me enough to understand the desperate choice I made. Even though it’s not the popular opinion, I did think of my loved ones left behind. I still think this even though I no longer want to die.
Ms Frostrup, I, this man you refer to or anyone who has either attempted or has taken their life, do not deserve to be called selfish.
The story above is just mine, not anybody else’s. I have no idea what anyone else has gone through, but the reason why I am able to tell you of the circumstances that preceded my suicide attempt is that I’m still alive to tell about it. The dead can’t tell their side of the story or defend themselves. But I can.
Also just on a pure human level, how do you think any suicide attempt survivor or anyone bereaved by suicide reading your column is going to feel?
One person did voice her feelings to you. She had lost a family member to suicide, and had found your piece ‘factually incorrect, dismissive and downright insulting,’ She also mentioned that it had deeply upset her family. This was your response.
Yes, people write to you for your opinion. This woman however did not write to you for a medical opinion or for your opinion on suicide. She has very recently lost her husband in extremely traumatic circumstances and was looking for your support and empathy. You do proceed to give her this but not before possibly insulting her and her husband’s memory more deeply than you’ll ever know.
I am genuinely sorry for the losses you have experienced. I have not lost anyone to suicide myself. That is an experience you do have but I don’t. But losing friends to suicide does not make you a medical expert or an expert to draw conclusions about every suicide ever carried out. Being suicidal by no means makes me an expert on all suicides either but I am a person who has been on that thin line between life and death and, at least to my understanding, you are not.
So, like you, I also have an experience to share.
I have publicly made this invitation to you before but I’m now repeating it. I am happy to sit down with you and discuss this matter further so you can present your thoughts on what I have just said. An insight to another person’s thoughts is something that none of us have. This is why we have conversations, to offer each other that insight.
I would also recommend that you would take the time to review the resources and personal experiences shared during the Mental Health Awareness week, which just passed. Statements like the ones you made are not helpful to anyone in the process of societal change towards removing the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Link to the column: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/20/my-husband-recently-killed-himself-and-i-cant-face-being-on-my-own