New Zealand has long struggled with its suicide rate—and still has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. But the majority of people who experience being suicidal do recover. We spoke to three women have survived suicidal thoughts about what was helpful for them, how they managed to regain their health, and what strategies they currently employ to keep suicidal ideation in check.
If you’re concerned these accounts may be triggering, we’ve compiled a briefer list of advice and strategies here: What Helps When You’re Suicidal - From Those Who Have Been There. There’s also a list of helplines and places to access help here.
VICE: What was your experience of suicidal thoughts?
Madeleine Holden: In 2014, when I was 26, I decided that I wanted to kill myself. I had been dealing with varying levels of depression for most of my teens and early 20s, but I got to a point where I'd completely lost hope in the winter of that year. Two years earlier, I had been living with a close friend who was involved in investigating most of the suicides that happened in the Auckland region. At one point she mentioned one method—and I latched onto that information and stored it. Two years later, when I decided I wanted to die by suicide, I already knew how I would do it.
In the end, I didn't make an attempt, but I reached quite detailed planning stages. I was staying with my sister, her husband and their two-year-old son (my nephew) in a downstairs bedroom. I remember a single online research session lasting about an hour or two during which I thought about exactly how, when and where I would carry out the process.
Thinking about it now, there were two main factors that stopped me from making an attempt. The first was that it was practically quite difficult to source the materials—although not impossible. The second, and more impactful, factor was that I felt sick about the idea of killing myself in the downstairs bedroom of my sister's house and her or my nephew being the first to find me. I guess that one really was the biggie, because I still get pretty upset thinking about it.
I think it really was just those two things. I definitely didn't have any kind of feeling that I was only going through a rough patch or that things would get better or that life was worth living after all. I just didn't want my family to have to find my dead body.
After deciding I wasn't going to make an attempt, I felt much worse in the immediate term: like I was truly without any other option but to feel like I was feeling forever. Longer term, a combination of things [have helped]. The main ones were medication; therapy; coming out, and living more openly as queer; changing jobs and cities; and putting boundaries around problematic family relationships—meant that I haven't hit that kind of low point again since.
I had a false start with therapy. During this period of suicidal ideation I'm describing, I was seeing a therapist in Auckland who asked me if I was eating enough vegetables and suggested that getting a boyfriend would help me feel better. I found it condescending, reductive and expensive (I was paying $140 a session). After six sessions, I stopped going. A few years later when I was living in London, my mental health issues started to manifest in debilitating panic attacks. I went on Fluoxetine and searched for affordable therapists in the London area, and found one who I liked the look of (he mentioned being experienced in LGBTQ issues and had a background in feminist theory). We focused a lot on family, identity and meaning in our sessions, and I found the work challenging but helpful. I had some important conversations with family members during this time and, one year later after moving to Berlin, I came out to my friends and family as queer.
I haven't had the same kind of sustained and committed suicidal ideation since 2014 but when I do have thoughts about killing myself my best strategy is to let a friend know I'm feeling awful and try to spend time around them. I'm not always great at doing this, though, and sometimes I ride it out alone, which I wouldn't recommend. I also try to look at my situation analytically and see if there are things I could change: am I getting enough sleep? Should I quit my job? Do I need to be on medication again? Do I need to end a relationship or put space between me and someone else?
What was helpful or unhelpful for friends/family to do or say when you were experiencing suicidal ideation? And to people experiencing suicidal ideation, what would you recommend?
It was helpful to be in physical proximity to people who cared about me, and to have a safe place to stay. It was helpful to have access to therapy and medication. I would recommend finding at least one person you can talk to about how you're feeling who has the ability to make you feel better about it, whether that's a professional, friend or family member. I have had several people over the years who I "reached out" to and who didn't check in on me subsequently or who didn't know what to say and so said nothing, or nothing especially empathetic. For example, after a pretty much total breakdown for which I was almost hospitalised when I was in London, my boyfriend at the time said, "Oh dear" after I filled him in on what happened, and nothing else.
Learning to rely on the people who do show up for you, showing up for them in return, and deprioritising or ending relationships with people who can't give you the support you need is probably the best advice I could give anyone based on my own experience, and an important qualifier to the "just reach out!" line, I think. Sometimes reaching out can be disappointing, and I think we should be more honest about that in our cultural conversations about mental health, but there will almost certainly be someone who is willing and able to give you what you need, so persevere.
Natalie Medlock is an actor and writer who’s just released her play, NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE, which deals extensively with suicide attempts, family attempts at intervention and existential crises.
VICE: What’s your experience of surviving suicidality been?
Natalie: I have always been very anxious and disposed to sadness, predisposed I guess. And when I was in my teens and early twenties I just thought that it was an external thing that was making me like this. And I thought, when this happens, or when that happens in the future, or one day I'll be the notion of ‘happy’, whatever you think that is. And I never did. Obviously, I have great days and I laugh a lot with my friends, but about seven years ago there was a quite traumatic event and that triggered me to have, I would call it a breakdown. I was having out of body experiences and couldn’t really leave the house, having panic attacks and that prompted me to go on medication. Then for the last seven years I have been on and off about five different medications trying to find the right one, and now I take a concoction of three different medications, and that seems to be working quite well at the moment. During that period of time, I got very, very thin at one point and I used to have this ridiculous fantasy that I would blow away in the wind and never exist. The worst I think I got was I started researching [suicide methods].
At the time I was a real advocate for the idea that euthanasia shouldn’t just be for the terminally ill. I wasn’t convinced of the idea that we [the mentally ill] are supposed to all get better. It’s something the play challenges, do we all get better? You know, and that’s a very difficult question and one that I am sitting here now thinking yeah, we probably do—but I could take a turn for the worse again. I find that a really difficult question. I felt particularly like, people would always say “oh, it’s the depression talking”. And I would be like, “but I don't have any other thoughts in my head, so if that's the depression talking then who the fuck am I? I don’t exist? That is the only voice I identify with.”
Because I found it quite insulting as well, that I was faulty—because at the same time, those are your thoughts and that is who you are. So it’s kind of valid in a way. Now I am far less clear about it, because I am not suffering like I was.
So when you were in that dark place, where you actively looking at options - were there things that ended up helping you get out of that place?
I checked myself into a depression rehab last year because I just didn’t know what else to do. There were some things that I got out of that, like acupuncture that has been phenomenal for my anxiety. You’ve got to get a good one, but for me, it was better than valium. I am still doing that. Massages because the main thing for me was my nervous system was in fight or flight for so long that I was totally burnt out.
But the main thing was getting myself, my adrenaline, my fight or flight down through walking, massages and the acupuncture really helped. Walking does really help. But sometimes I have to just cry and weep on the floor for hours and wait for it to pass. And sometimes I just have to take a valium or a lorazepam and it’s okay.
You were talking about watching your family support you, could you tell me a bit more about that?
I remember the first time I said to my boyfriend, ‘There is no point in the universe,’ and I was very sad and he just looked terrified. Initially, he was so obsessed with fixing me that he would get quite angry because he couldn't. And he also was like you are a white privileged woman, and my life is very good, and so there was that kind of resentment there as well. But it took a few years and now he is just really great, he will make me go for a walk or he will just sit with me. He doesn't try to ask “what's wrong? what's wrong?” It’s like, I’m depressed, that’s what’s wrong. My parents are really, my mum particularly she is always calling to check on me and texting me so I just know that they are there for me. And my friend group, I've got a really good strong group of women and we all support each other when we fall over. Come to the rescue.
So if you were talking directly to someone who has got a friend who I am really worried about, they seem chronically depressed or suicidal or whatever. What would you say to that person in terms of knowing how to support them?
Oh god, I would encourage them to go and try and get them to therapy—but they have got to go to a good therapist because it is so easy to get put off therapy. I had a year where I really categorise it as a waste of time and a huge money blower. So you need to ask around, but I would encourage them to go and see someone. And just be there for them, show up, make sure they are eating, make sure they are sleeping, just text them and when they say “I don't want to see you”, just show up. I think that is the main one. Just show up, be there, be dependable. And it is also not “oh they are sad this week, oh that's good, I went round twice”—because sometimes it's going to be months and months and months and you need to keep showing up.
What would you say to someone who may be where you were in that dark place those years ago?
I would say self-care is number one. If you not adept at talking to [friends], go and see someone professional. Really go and see someone.
When you say self-care, what does that mean to you?
I mean sleep, I mean eat, I mean exercise. Don't drink all the alcohol in the cupboard, which I did do and still maintain that it was a good thing, but apparently, it's not. And also when it comes to medication, go and see a psychiatrist because the doctor will probably put you on a bulk standard of citalopram and if that doesn't work, which it is very likely not to, you need to go and see a good psychiatrist. And again be wary, it took me 5-7 years to find the right psychiatrist to find the right drugs. And don't feel bad about going on medication, I am probably never going to come off mine and I am fine with that.
Jenny Condie is an academic and economist-turned-politician, and was a candidate for The Opportunities Party in the last election.
VICE: What’s your experience of dealing with suicidal thoughts been?
Jenny: I had my first depressive episode as an undergrad at Vic Uni. Took me another 10 years to finally get medicated. Even with the meds I still have depressive episodes and suicidal ideation.
What helped me was realising that these suicidal thoughts aren't "mine". They don't belong to me, they happen inside my brain, but they aren't true or real—they are just symptoms of my illness. Just like I can think "elephants are purple with yellow spots" I can think "I should just be dead".
Even so, I always take them seriously—whenever I have a suicidal thought I tell someone, usually my husband. He understands that this doesn't express any wish of mine to die, they are just a symptom and a barometer of my mental health.
I know people are now questioning the medicalisation of depression, but for me it was really helpful to start thinking of my depression like it was diabetes. Yes, there are lifestyle changes you can make that help manage your condition, but some people need medication too. If you let your diabetes get out of control you can go into a diabetic coma and die. If you let your depression get out of control you can get caught in suicidal thoughts and die. For diabetics, they can take a blood test to check their sugar levels. With depression you don't have that, so you have to get really good at paying attention to your symptoms. For me, suicidal thoughts are a red flag that things are getting pretty bad. I take them seriously as soon as they arise, so they are less likely to escalate to a point where they feel more compelling or believable.
I had an episode recently—uncontrollable sobbing for hours, negative self-talk and suicidal thoughts. For me, it helped knowing that it would end. I knew when it started it was going to be a big one, but I held on to the thought that it could only last for hours, not days. It was the middle of the night and my husband was asleep, so I chatted online with my bestie in the UK and told her I was having suicidal thoughts. She kept me company while I waited it out. And I just remind myself that these thoughts aren't real or true, they’re just thoughts, just symptoms of my illness. After about 4 hours the worst was over, and another hour after that I was able to calm down enough to fall asleep.
What was helpful/unhelpful for friends and family to do or say when you were experiencing suicidal ideation?
The first thing is just not to freak out. I appreciate a calm, pragmatic response. When people get very emotional, even an outpouring of love and concern, I just find that exhausting—it's one more thing I have to deal with when I'm already overwhelmed. Being present is the most important thing. Just say "I'm here with you. I will be with you while you get through this."
To people experiencing suicidal ideation, from your own experience what would you recommend?
Get some company. When I'm in crisis it's pretty messy—uncontrollable sobbing, shaking. It's not easy to let another person see you like that. But having company keeps you safe. Stay with that person until your crisis has passed. (For me, that usually takes a few hours.) While I'm in crisis and dealing with suicidal thoughts I just remind myself that it's not going to last forever, that I can bear feeling this bad for a few hours, that I just need to wait it out. The other thing is always getting practical help once your crisis has passed. It can be tempting to think the next day you don't really need to tell anyone now that it's over. You really do. Make plans to get practical help from friends and family. Contact a mental health professional as soon as you can—call a helpline, go see your GP, contact your therapist if you have one.
Editor’s note: these accounts have been edited for length, and discussion of suicide method in has been redacted in compliance with New Zealand’s suicide reporting regulations.
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