My friend took her life when we least expected it. The odd thing about her suicide is that she spoke about it a number of times. However, my friends and I could never fully grasp the idea that someone would end their life. At some point, it transformed into a joke we shared when we felt that we had had enough of life. I remember how we would dramatically announce that it would be ‘easier to just die’ and we just ‘can’t live like this anymore’. Then one day, it stopped being funny and we could never freely utter those words again.
We grew up together, a small group of four that spoke about any and everything. We came to know her as the strongest, loudest and rebellious in the group. We gave her the nickname Sunny. She always rushed into situations, laughed through the consequences and latched onto life. That changed in high school. The change was subtle, it began with mood swings and anti-social tendencies like choosing to quietly sit alone when everyone was laughing together. When we reached out to her, she told us that she just did not feel good about herself or life. Sunny could never explain why she felt that way but constantly told us ‘not to worry’. Every time I pushed her to speak to someone about the issue, she always questioned how she would begin asking for help for something she could not fully understand herself. She often referred to me as a Worry-Bug who cared way too much about the little things.
Sunny first confided in the group about not wanting to live anymore. Our friends took it as seriously as they could for the first month. We spoke to her, convinced her that life could not be so bad but we could never pull her out of the state she was in. At some point, they pulled away from her and confessed that she was too depressing to be around. They further explained that we could only speak in circles about death but she needed professional help. Something we could not give her. I advised Sunny to speak to her family. She later reported that they had given her a long lecture about the normality of having problems in life and dismissed her pleas for help. As a last resort, I dragged her to the life orientation teacher. Our school did not have formal counselling or a psychological help system so we settled on the teacher we believed could help. Sunny was given a basic lecture about the need to stay strong but no professionals were reached. In short, she was told that she was just going through a phase and everything would magically get better.
I took it upon myself to listen, try to understand and advise her to the best of my abilities. I poured my energy into making her laugh each day and we planned on accomplishing so much together. As much as she went along with my positive energy, she always mentioned how exhausted she felt and that she could not see herself living long. She refused any suggestions of calling a helpline and believed that she could not get help from strangers if the people around her had failed. As much as they could not help, people were quick to advise me to stop entertaining her. They mentioned that her suicidal speeches were to gain attention and keep me obsessed with her. Within a year, Sunny was neck deep into drugs and alcohol. She abandoned school, could never be found at home and would disappear for weeks at a time. I constantly tried to reach out to her. Whenever she answered my calls, she told me not to worry because
The last call we shared, she laughed about the bad image she had created of herself and how people refused to care even when she went crazy. Sunny went onto tell me that I would always be her Worry-bug who cared way too much about her. She ended the call by telling me that she had to get ready to go partying later that day. I advised her to be safe and I remember she laughed at my paranoia. The next time I heard about her, I was told she had mixed a number of pills together with alcohol and passed away. The most astonishing thing is that people were genuinely surprised and referred to her death as an act of carelessness. Others attributed it to her extreme behaviour, the bad crowd she had chosen to be with and how she was not in the right state of mind in her last days. Nobody ever mentioned that she had openly cried out for help or expressed all the signs of her struggle.
I read in The Citizen Newspaper (October 2019) that South Africa has an estimated suicide rate of 13.4 people per 100 000. That is approximately four times the global rate and the newspaper neatly described it as an estimated 18 people dying each day. It was once easy to read through such statistics without grasping their full extent. That is until Sunny could be counted among them. For the longest time, I believed that I failed her or I had not done enough. I struggled with that mentality until I realise that the problem was far bigger than the two of us.
As much as there are agencies and campaigns on suicide prevention, they are yet to reach the basic levels of the community. Perhaps offer more advice for families and friends dealing with suicidal individuals than to refer them to a trusted individual or a hotline. Hopefully, we could learn how to save a life.
Read one writer’s struggles with mental health challenges here
Tell us: What do you think can be done to help someone who is struggling with depression?