‘It’s sent me into a spiral of depression, and probably even suicidal behavior. Most of the world is unbearable, even to this day,’ confesses Mike Palmer, a father who’s youngest daughter died by suicide in 2021.
Mike’s daughter, Beth Palmer, was just 17 when she died. He has since, naturally, struggled with poor mental health himself.
Studies show that those directly affected by suicide are more likely to die in the same way.
‘Survivors of suicide loss are at higher risk of developing major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behaviors’, a paper from the University of California reads, while a research from UCL found ‘people bereaved by the sudden death of a friend or family member are 65% more likely to attempt suicide if the deceased died by suicide than if they died by natural causes.’
While there are resources and support groups for affected by suicide in the immediate aftermath of grief, seldom does their own long-term mental health get as serious a look-in.
Since the passing of his daughter, Mike, 58, has sought out education around the matter and has been there to support other parents in similar circumstances. He’s also raised more than £1,000,000 for suicide prevention charity, Papyrus.
It was in Manchester during the coronavirus lockdowns that Mike thinks Beth’s mental health plummeted, as her world fell apart and upcoming singing performances she had booked across the city were cancelled.
However, Mike says ‘we’ll never know all the reasons why’ his daughter ended her life, and now thinks the family ‘missed the signs’, and put her behaviour at the time down to being a ‘teenager’.
‘What is left behind is basically everything is shattered and the the ripple effect is absolutely huge,’ he says.
‘We basically limp along with our life now. But I work to raise awareness for prevention of young suicide. That’s my aim and my my point at the moment.’
In March, Mike, along with Andy Airey and Tim Owen – the three of them known as the 3 Dads Walking due to their charity walks – successfully brought a debate around suicide education to government. Suicide prevention will now be included in the national curriculum, thanks to their campaigning.
This altruism was born out of immense suffering. Mike says the world ‘changes colour’ and sometimes you don’t know ‘how to breathe’ anymore when you’ve lost someone by suicide.
‘I couldn’t even get out of bed. There’s many emotions after losing someone to suicide, obviously, there’s all the despair and pain.
‘There’s also anger as well. But I am angry at myself too, because I do believe I missed some signs.’
Wanting to learn more about mental health, Mike went on to train in multiple areas including post-suicide, through courses and charities. He can now instruct mental health first aid, among much more.
‘Sometimes post-suicide there isn’t enough signposting,’ he adds.
‘There is support out there, but often people don’t know how to find support, either.’
Niyc Pidgeon, a psychologist, knows this only too well. Having lost friends to suicide over the years including Love Island’s Sophie Gradon – and having attempted suicide aged 12 herself, she sees the impact on people both personally and professionally.
She says the effects on those left behind cannot be underestimated.
‘The impact of suicide can ricochet through families and friendship groups, leaving a wake of emptiness and grief behind where those close to someone who died by suicide are left trying to make sense of what happened,’ she explains.
‘It is said that one person dying by suicide impacts six people directly who are close to them, and exposes more than 135 people around them, meaning that as well as almost a million people dying by suicide, millions of loved ones are impacted by suicide every year too.’
While suicide is an obvious marker of an ending, so to speak, it also – for those still living – is the beginning of a new way of life: one that wasn’t planned for or expected, and one that falls out of line with the ‘norm’.
Niyc says: ‘An abrupt change like this can affect their own mental health and put loved ones at greater risk of experiencing depression, grief, post traumatic stress disorder, and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors themselves.
‘Feelings of sadness, loss and confusion can become more prevalent and we know that unlike positive emotions, which have an expansive, energising and building effect, these kinds of feelings can cause narrowing of thinking and dampen your enthusiasm for life.
‘However, we are also able to find a deeper sense of meaning and purpose through challenging times too, and research shows that this discovery of meaning is both healing, as well as acting as a preventative measure too.’
These people can end up ‘less willing to reach out for help for themselves’, especially when battling shock, shame and guilt – three commonly reported experiences in suicide survivors.
‘When dealing with grief it can sometimes feel like we just have to get on with things,’ Niyc adds.
There is also a historical stigma around suicide – only recently has it become a topic which is discussed more freely, and even then, it can be hard to bring up.
When people do reach out though, Mike thankfully has found support is often found.
‘You join a club you really do not want to join. But you do if you reach out within that club, you’ll find someone who will give you a some sort of helping hand,’ he says.
Feeling isolated and in a ‘dark place’, Mike began to speak to other grieving dads. Two years on, he speaks to bereaved parents every day – which, he adds, ‘isn’t an exaggeration’.
As well as helping others, Mike also has certain habits that help his own mental state.
‘Suicide in many ways it’s like carrying a massive boulder around. You just can’t lose it,’ he says.
‘But I’m doing something now. I’m walking my dog. He’s a small, smelly little dog. But he’s got me out on this sunny day, and I’m walking outside. That’s got to be a huge plus.
‘So how do I cope day by day? Every day is different. The fundraising and awareness stuff I do takes up a lot of my life at the moment.
‘I do try and keep busy. I try and wake up every day with a plan.’
Mike has sought out therapy, gone to organisations such as Greater Manchester Bereavement Information Service for support, and contacted his GP – who he still regularly checks in with.
‘To be quite honest, my GP wasn’t really up to speed with post-suicide support what was going on with me. She’s since made a huge effort to educate herself,’ he says.
‘But you have to talk, talk, talk and talk. Because you have to process it in the end. It really will never go away. That’s too much to hope for.
‘The grief will change in time, so you will be able to operate.
‘It may not be the life you foresaw, but it’s a life still worth living – even if you’re living for other people, as well.’
Nicy adds: ‘Making mental health and wellbeing a focus point within our lives, relationships and in the workplace is going to be key to helping protect more people from the risk of suicide, and help more people find the willingness to live.’
How can we support those affected by suicide better?
- Continue to normalise conversations about mental health, as this allows for people to feel more comfortable sharing their feelings and opening up to receive support.
- Simply asking someone how they’re feeling today, inviting them out for a walk, and letting them know they matter can help increase their sense of belonging.
- Cultivating a sense of hopefulness and having something to look forward to, knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel, can make a difference.
If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, you can called the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit Papyrus for support.
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