The meaning of life

“Suicide is painless” so the song lyrics would have us believe. It’s not. A friend of mine tried to end her life under a train, tearing herself apart, literally, in the process, but surviving. She died a day or so later. It was not painless, not for anyone involved.


Reading between the lines © John MacPherson

Owen Jones has an insightful commentary in The Independent that deserves wider consideration. ‘”Tragic deaths that deserve a better response than I witnessed.”

Last week, someone ended their life by throwing themselves in front of the train I was travelling on.

I’ll never forget the moment of collision: although, of course, it was not obvious what had happened until a shaken train guard informed us all over the loudspeaker. Neither will I forget the largely respectful silence that followed, or the woman who wept as she told a loved one what had happened over the phone………

…….When Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik stood down for three weeks in 1998 to deal with a serious bout of depression, he was applauded and later re-elected; but it is still seen as something those in British public life would generally never dream of discussing. That was somewhat challenged in June in one of Parliament’s finest moments, when MPs including Kevan Jones and Sarah Wollaston stood up to describe their own experiences.

We desperately need to hear more such voices. As mental health charity Mind describes, those with mental health problems are often isolated; are unable to take part in everyday activities; and struggle to get jobs. No one sufferer has the same experience, and there is no one solution. But all of us will know people in our families, workplaces and communities who are silently struggling, unable to seek support.

I don’t know whose life ended under the train I was on, and neither do I know the circumstances that drove them there. I do know that, unless we address the stigma, the ever-declining support, the economic causes, and the sheer lack of voice, many more will take that last, lonely journey.

Twitter: @OwenJones84

  • Part of the problem John, is that in general, mental health has never had a “sympathetic image” in the public eye in this country, unlike, say, cancer. There’s something about mental health that frightens Joe Public though it may be less so now than in the past.

    • Thanks for commenting Tony. I agree. the stigma attached to mental illness is often worse than the actual illness, individual’s fear of “what people will think” of them in some instances being very debilitating. I know this was the case in my own family. Mental illness is the elephant in the room – we all know it’s there but its name we must not speak. I think part of the problem is the unpredictability of mental illness, its various manifestations, and the range of behaviours that can result which makes it hard for the general public to come to terms with.

  • Agreed. I guess in many ways mental illness can seem less tangible to the non-sufferer. Do you remember Mrs T’s “Care in the Community” programme. Whatever happened to that? In my home town, we used to have a huge psychiatric hospital for adults. Under the said programme, it was closed down, the land sold off to a developer and luxury houses now fill the site. That said, there is still a small newish psychiatric unit just off the original site, but I wonder what happened to all those patients back in the day as the hospital they were relocated to (in another town) was also scaled back some years later.

    • I was working in Social Work right through the introduction and delivery of Community Care, although in Disability Services, but in a small town it meant also dealing with some folks with mental illness as well. The problem with Care in the Community was the cost of providing the same level of service in the community that was required to meet the needs that had placed people in long-term care in the first place, and which many local authorities struggled to afford. With the best will in the world providing comprehensive support services to a dispersed rural community was problematic. But you’re absolutely spot on with the observation that mental illness is pretty much invisible. I’m currently researching a potential photographic project on a specific type of mental illness that I know is a common problem, but well hidden, and its proving incredibly difficult to find anyone willing to participate. I think the education system could so a bit more to raise awareness of mental health issues – the schools of today are filled with the potential patients of tomorrow, and there’s a lot that could be done to combat the stigma thats attached to mental illness through education.

  • Yes John, to paraphrase a well-known TV programme, Education, Education, Education. But where will the educators come from? I ask this question thinking of a young woman I know who will go to university next year – she wants to become a counsellor – but will leave with debts around the £50k mark. If tomorrow’s educators face the same situation, well, you can guess the rest.

    • I think that may be why quite a few people in counselling come from a background of experience rather than education – if you understand my distinction. Many of the best counsellors I’ve met have not had the formal education to start with, but came into counselling via personal experience that led them to want to try to use their experience to make a difference, and the education came later. Personally I fear that we will look back with the clarity of hindsight to this period of financial uncertainty and instability and see the casualties that have occurred as a consequence, through unemployment, underemployment, debt, and the myriad of difficulties that flow from these problems. Mental Health is a difficult subject thats given little consideration by most folks, until they experience it first hand or see a family member suffering, and coping strategies are not always easily established or understood.

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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