For May Smith (not her real name) time has been condensed into two parts—before and after August 9—the day her brother John succumbed to depression and ended his own life.
More than six weeks after he was found dead, May carries the loss of her closest brother like a heavy weight on her shoulders.
Despair is etched on her face and is evident in her body language and tone of voice.
She weeps at the very mention of his name and can barely get through a few words before breaking down in tears.
It is a fact that the pandemic is affecting the mental health of people and resulting in an increase of distress, anxiety and depression.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the Covid-19 health crisis is exacerbating suicide risk factors.
John lost his job in the middle of the health crisis and fell into a deep, dark depression that he was ultimately unable to claw himself out of.
“He felt as if he could no longer support his family. He was under a lot of pressure. His wife told him that he wasn’t a good father,” said May.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back happened early last month when John’s wife told him that she had someone new in her life and was moving on.
Feeling like he was at his wit’s end, John attempted to end his life.
He was taken to the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope where doctors were able to save him.
His suicide attempt had failed but even as he lay on the hospital bed John had already made up his mind.
Just a few days after he was admitted into the hospital, he ran away and went home, where his 13-year-old son later found him.
May remembers that Sunday as if it were yesterday.
“I miss my brother so much, I wish I could tell him that I’m sorry. I saw the signs but I walked away, thinking that I could leave it for another day,” said May as she sobbed. “This is so painful, he was my everything.”
May and John were like two peas in a pod. May was the only girl and out of all their siblings, she and John had been the closest.
Growing up they shared the same bed and ate and drank from the same plate and cup.
John was the one May always turned to.
She looked to him back in 1990 when the family was turned upside down; one of their brothers had committed suicide.
Over the last few months, May got that feeling “down in her navel” that John was in the throes of a dark depression.
“He was distancing himself, he wanted to be alone and he was saying things to people—simple things—and only after did I realise that he was saying goodbye in a technical way,” said May.
John had always been a lover of birds, but toward the end of his life, his joy and energy had all but vanished.
“The last time I saw him was when he came back from an outing. I remember the sadness in his face. He looked like he didn’t want to be home, he was so depressed,” she recalled.
Having lost yet another brother to suicide, May and her family have been plunged into grief.
“Only this year the family was able to close the chapter on my first brother’s suicide. When his birthday came around in July, we were able to laugh about the good times instead of feeling sad. But now John’s death has opened up the wound all over again,” she said. May has some advice for those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“Please find it in your heart to talk to someone, open up that door, don’t shut it. You might think suicide will bring an end to your pain, but try to think about how many people will be left to suffer,” she said.
It is not unusual for May and others in similar circumstances to carry around a feeling of guilt, said counselling psychologist Jean-Luc Borel.
“It is actually quite normal for family members to feel guilt after someone has committed suicide. It is also not limited to family members, but rather anyone close to the person who committed the act,” said Borel. “Many will feel as though they should have known better or should have seen a sign to help. Often-times that sign does not and did not exist, but the guilt remains.”
He added that anyone carrying around a burden of guilt in the wake of a suicide of a family member or close friend should seek mental health support as guilt can turn into complex grief and cripple the person’s ability to move on.
In T&T, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 49.
Suicide rates in men are higher than for women in T&T.
The WHO estimates that out of the 100,000 lives that are taken every year worldwide, 36 per cent are between the ages 25 and 44, and 26 per cent occur in people between the ages of 45 and 59.
Clinical psychologist Dr Krishna Maharaj says we are living through an unprecedented mental health crisis, unlike anything he has seen in his 39-year career.
“As a mental health practitioner who has been in the field for a number of years, I am very concerned about the mental health of citizens, especially at a time like this. What we are experiencing locally, regionally and internationally is out of the ordinary and it is testing people’s coping mechanisms for sure,” said Maharaj. “What makes it even harder is the fact that we are not seeing an end to the pandemic. It may well be in mid-2021 if there is a vaccine, and even that is not guaranteed. The pandemic has put added stress on everybody and on the mental health services as well.”
Maharaj said people who are struggling to cope with the current challenges should access the State’s services as a matter of urgency and ask to speak with a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Following a consultation the health care practitioner will determine the severity of the problem and decide whether the person requires either regular visits as a member of the outpatient clinic or immediate in-patient care, explained Maharaj.
He said people should also look out for one another.
“Now is a good time to be our brother’s keeper; neighbour should keep an eye out for their neighbour and family members should check in with one another,” he said.
Next Sunday: Male suicide in T&T—a growing crisis