If you stand on the edge of life, take a step back

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Project 84 ITV London Studios
The statues, at ITV Towers in London, represent the 84 men who commit suicide every week in the UK. Credit: CALM

Dozens of faceless statues stood atop one of London’s most prominent television studios on the South Bank, prompting much comment and conversation among passers-by this week.

The figures, faces obscured by hooded drawstrings, represent the 84 men who commit suicide every week in the UK, according to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). Project 84, launched Monday, encourages conversation on the subject of what is the single biggest killer of men under 45. The reasons for suicide are varied and complex but, as research by the charity Samaritans points out, “men compare themselves against a ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility”.

As someone that could have become one of those statues at ITV Towers, this issue strikes close to home. This past Sunday marks three years since the end of what I call the ‘long-term meltdown’, a period of significant anxiety attacks and suicidal thoughts punctuating my first year at this university. Meltdowns involving streams of hyperbolic and vitriolic attacks on myself on Facebook and in person became commonplace, like when I called myself “a poison to society”. Halls’ walls began to feel more like a prison than a place of sanctity. I argued with myself as to why I wasn’t with other people, while simultaneously telling myself any attention was undeserved because I was a failure. It was not so much that I wanted to die, but rather that I did not want to live in my current situation, and had lost sight of what to live for.

The only thing that stopped me at the time was my own squeamishness. “You can’t even do suicide right,” I told myself.

Having Asperger’s Syndrome exacerbated the problem. In an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people and an unfamiliar sense of freedom, if you may call it that, life became difficult to cope with, as someone who regularly looks for signs of authority and structure to follow. The student union’s Freshers Week literature — proclaiming the words “This is the best week of your life” — made matters worse, not better.

Expressing emotions is more difficult for autistic people, so as well as being disappointed with myself for ‘not being good enough’, I would become frustrated at my inability to express this in the ‘right’ way. There are numerous little-known but powerful pop songs that articulate the sentiment of getting through this sense of hopelessness well, and I am sure we all have our favourites. Mine include ‘Giants’ by Ella Henderson, ‘Secret for the Mad’ by dodie, and ‘Song 6’ by George Ezra.

You’re at the bottom, this is it

Just get through, you will be fixed

And you think that I don’t get it

But I burned my way through and I don’t regret it

— ‘Secret for the Mad’, dodie

One of my coping mechanisms is using humour. Even at my lowest moments, I was cracking self-deprecating political jokes. Example: “Everybody else secretly dislikes me. I don’t know how to achieve anything and I’m not going to achieve anything more. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a real person and never will; I’m completely out of touch with everybody else. Just like the Labour Party.”

However, eventually, I got the help I needed. I got a counsellor, and was able to improve my state of play enough to leave after less than a year. I bonded with new friends and hugged things out. I stopped dwelling so much on the bigger picture and began to live life day-to-day.

In November 2014, I could not have imagined the progress I would go on to make. Since then, I have become a volunteer charity shop manager, thanked some of my favourite YouTubers in person, and explored new social activities, making many more friends along the way. There was also the small matter of campaigning to be Union President. Though I lost, I take great pride in having embraced the philosophy of ‘give it a go’.

If you are concerned for your own wellbeing, even if what you are feeling is ‘not worth bothering others about’, I would recommend contacting Samaritans. I did this a couple of times in my ‘down’ moments, and it was a major help. Having the space to speak to friends also proved invaluable. To open up about your insecurities is not a sign of weakness because you are vulnerable. It is a sign of strength because you are honest.

The philosophy of ‘give it a go’ can be a powerful influence. Credit: Craig Munro

In Stirling, calming blue lights are now used at some pedestrian level crossings to positively influence behaviour. At the university, awareness-raising has offered reassurance to students, in the form of efforts like the ‘Elephant in the Room’ campaign in 2016 and the Union’s mental wellbeing survey in 2017. Confidentiality problems continue in the Student Services Hub, but efforts are being made to address this. The next Union sabbatical team will undoubtedly make mental health support a priority.

As a fourth year student, graduation is lurking, and I am not fully in control of what happens after that. But I shall try to take on the new challenges, one step at a time.

It would be wrong to suggest I have no problems now. Procrastination and fear of the future remain major concerns. ‘Up’ days and ‘down’ days continue. However, anxiety cannot be removed; it can only be controlled. Professor Steve Peters uses the metaphor of keeping a chimp in a box — in other words, an impulsive and irrational voice catastrophizing things that might go wrong. Broadly speaking, you cannot outperform your chimp, but you can learn to control it, and give it appropriate room to exercise. You are not invincible. Recognise you have limits.

To put it another way, I was stood on the edge of life. To show true strength is to take a step back, and take another look.

Hold a gun to my head, count, one, two, three

If it helps me walk away then it’s what I need

Every minute gets easier the more you talk to me

You rationalise my darkest thoughts, yeah, you set them free

— ‘Take Me Home’, Jess Glynne

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can call Samaritans (UK & ROI) on 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org.

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