Shortly before midnight just over 3 weeks ago, I was wakened by a call from my sister in London. Given that I had been staying with her a week earlier and with the knowledge that she does not normally call to exchange idle banter, even in my sleep-soaked state I was immediately prepared to expect bad news. And indeed it was pretty damn shocking. She told me that my 31 year old nephew and god-son, had committed suicide a few hours earlier; not her son, but that of one my brothers. It turned out to have been a very considered and deliberate act, but horrific in its fulfillment.
My nephew was academically bright, good looking, amiable and popular. He was also privileged, coming from a reasonably affluent family with parents who provided him with many of the opportunities and possessions and all the love any child could have hoped for, without his becoming spoiled. He was a competent sportsman who surfed, skied, fished, rode and played football. But he was also shy, self-effacing and unobtrusive, preferring to hang around the periphery rather than be the centre of conversation or social activity. There always seemed to be a slightly sardonic smile as if he was observing, though rarely commenting. In truth, this reticence made it difficult to get to know him.
He had had a nervous breakdown at university 10 years earlier and since then had presented his family much cause for concern. Though I knew him less well than others, I recall that he had always been a sad boy and I vividly remember how that even as a small child he cried a great deal for no apparent reason.
I mention this event, not to garner sympathy, but rather to draw attention to the whole subject of suicide. A friend of mine is involved with a company called, CNS Response that seeks to address the failure of the psychiatric and medical professions to deal with the mental disease. Prescribing appropriate medication is by all accounts, a very hit and miss affair, as my nephew himself attested to. He had declined further medical help. I gather that doctors frequently prescribe a drug without really knowing what the effects on any given patient will be. Sometimes they are positive, but more often than not the reverse is true and so the next drug in the alphabet gets put forward, until such time as one, or rather a cocktail of several seems to produce acceptable results. The problem is that many of the effects lead to suicide of which there has been an alarming increase in recent years, especially amongst war veterans. CNS Response seeks to address this issue by building up a database of patients, drugs and the effects they have. By cross referencing millions of results and masses of data, they claim to be able to better select the appropriate medication for patients who have been submitted for analysis. (That is my summary. Visit the website for something more precise. It certainly sounds a viable option and my friend claims that the results are there to be seen. Sadly they are struggling to find sufficient investment.)
It happened that shortly after speaking to my friend, I was in London listening to Woman’s Hour. I cannot stand Jenni Murray, which is by the by, but the radio was on and I just carried on listening. The comedienne and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig was one of the guests, promoting her new book. She went on to explain her association with and admiration for the armed forces and especially her concern for veterans of the various wars. She informed us that during the Falklands War, 270 British soldiers had been killed. Since then, a further 280 had committed suicide, a shocking statistic. One man I knew, a chap who courted my sister for a while, had been badly burned on the Galahad. He died in a car accident some years later. I am not sure whether his name is included in the 280 but I believe, as would have my sister, that it should have been.
Many of you will have seen the article earlier this week about the former guardsman who stabbed his children before killing himself. “On July 20, 1982, Pedersen was taking part in the Changing of the Guard procession when a remote-controlled bomb was detonated as the Blues and Royals rode past, claiming the lives of four of his comrades as well as seven of their horses.” Stories such as this are less appealing than those of a more salacious nature, and they do not hog the front pages in the way that other, to my mind, less deserving articles do. But it strikes me as entirely tragic that a man can be so distraught as to act in that way. Of course I cannot know for sure, but I have little doubt that the lasting effects of the terrorist attack played a very significant role in finally pushing him over the edge.
My nephew was not a soldier nor was there any incident that I am aware of the might have caused him to be so unhappy so I do not know why he chose to do what he did. But I can readily accept that some people, like he, become so sad that they find life no longer worth living. The method he chose was not pleasant but demonstrated very clearly what his intentions were. This was not a ‘cri de coeur’. He wanted to finish things once and for all. He was discovered by his flat-mate the boyfriend of one of my nieces. They were good friends and he knew of my nephew’s depression.
In contemplating the event, a horrible thought occurred to me. What if he, or I or anybody else had discovered him while there was still time to save him? Of course our instincts would have been to call an ambulance and try to save him. But would that have been the right thing to do. He had so clearly wanted to die. Would I have felt any less guilty if I had saved him than if I had positively allowed him to die? I honestly do not know.
The weekend before, he had gone to visit his family at their home in the west country. It was a happy occasion, by all accounts. On returning to London, he had written to them and to his employer with his resignation. All his other affairs were in order.
He had been born in Saudi Arabia where my brother had been working at the time. By way of acknowledgement for the years spent there, his parents had been given him an Arabic middle name. It was clearly no coincidence that he chose the day he did to take his own life. Tuesday September 11th.