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Our mental health: We need more stories like Ruth Davidson's

posted Sep 16, 2018, 10:55 AM by Karen Wetherall   [ updated Sep 16, 2018, 11:33 AM ]

I awoke this morning to see a timeline full of tweets about Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s admission (in a Sunday Times Magazine interview including an extract from her forthcoming book) that she struggled with her mental health 20 years ago; that she had self-harmed and had been suicidal.  Here are some quick thoughts.

Irrespective of your political allegiance (incidentally, I have never voted Conservative), this feels important. Someone who could potentially be First Minister of Scotland talking openly about her mental health, this is another step forward in our national discourse.  Mental health problems can and do affect all of us. Sadly, self-harm and suicidal thoughts are all too common in Scotland.  In a recent study of ours, one in nine 18-35 years olds reported having attempted suicide and one in six told us that they had engaged in self-harm at least once in their lives.

Part of me was surprised by Davidson’s admission given her public persona but another part of me wasn’t – about a decade ago she interviewed me for BBC Radio Scotland about a study on adolescent self-harm.  I remember being struck by her self-assured smile and also that she got-it; she seemed genuinely interested in adolescent mental health. It is evident now that she had personal insight.  Like many of us, Davidson’s outward public persona – gregarious, strong and driven – masks (or is a consequence of) a history of psychological pain. It is worth reminding ourselves every now and then that none of us know what is hidden behind a smile.

The ripples following suicide are vast, stretching way beyond close family and friends.  Davidson talks about a boy from her village who took his own life when she was 17 and although she doesn’t know why his death affected her so deeply she “went into a total tailspin.”  The fact that someone’s death, not a relative or a close friend can have such a profound impact on Davidson is consistent with the research evidence on ‘exposure to suicide’. The latest research estimates that, for every suicide death, 135 people are ‘exposed’ (knew the person who died) and some may need clinical help or support. Also, the effect of this exposure can be long-lasting.  Today is especially poignant for me. 10 years ago to the day, I lost a close, close friend to suicide.   Even after all these years, the pain of this loss is still raw; such that I’ve been taken aback by how emotional I’ve been in the lead up to the anniversary.  Davidson’s story and my own personal experience remind me why it is so important that we support those bereaved by suicide and never assume anyone’s mental health.

 “It was like a smothering black blanket over my head, cutting out the sky. It was heavy, constricting, suffocating. It took away hope and energy and life” Ruth Davidson

Davidson’s description of her depression as a black blanket powerfully captures the cognitive constriction or tunnel vision that often characterises those who are suicidal: being overwhelmed, exhausted, trapped, without any hope of rescue.  Sadly for approximately 700 people in Scotland each year, the impossibility of seeing a positive future, of perceiving no reasons to live, of feeling a burden on others and this unrelenting sense of disconnection come together in a perfect storm of entrapment that contributes to their suicide. As today marks the end of World Suicide Prevention Week, it is timely to highlight this year’s theme: Working Together To Prevent Suicide.  We all have a role to play in reducing entrapment, reaching out, promoting connectedness and challenging mental health stigma.  Davidson has made a welcome contribution to challenging that stigma by speaking out. We need more stories like Davidson’s.

Ultimately Davidson’s story is one of hope. If you are reading this and are in a dark place, overwhelmed by the ‘black blanket’; though it is hard to believe it now, convinced that things will never change, that you’ll never recover and that the pain will never end.  It does. It can. And it will.

The last line of the interview, to me, is the show-stopper: “It’s being happy, Decca. That’s what it’s about.  I haven’t always been happy. And what a difference it makes.”  It is vital, truly a matter of life and death, that we do not take our mental health for granted.   Without our mental health, what do we have? We need to work on it, nurture it, protect it.

Rory O'Connor

16th September 2018