Earlier this year, I learned of another person I know who took their own life. I can count on two hands the people I know or know of who have died by their own hand. There is a sense of helplessness when this happens, especially when you know how the lives of those who loved them will be irrevocably changed.
I have had the black dog nipping at my heels during my years, and I know the deep existential sadness and lack of connection and purpose; it can make you question if your attendance in life is really necessary.
When I happened upon the research by US psychiatrist, Dr Jerome Motto, I felt perhaps there was something I could do in a small way.
Between 1969 and 1974, psychiatric hospitals in San Francisco admitted 3,005 people for depression or suicidal tendencies. Dr Motto and the statistician Alan Bostrom randomly assigned some 843 of these patients to one of two groups after they were discharged from the hospital. In the contact group, patients received periodic, handwritten letters from a health care professional who had interviewed them. The letters expressed concern, care, and a desire to stay in contact. Patients in the contact group received eight letters in the first year.
They then received four letters every year over the next four years; a total of 24 letters over five years. Patients in the control group did not receive letters from the hospital. Two years after leaving the hospital – the span of time when at-risk patients are most likely to take their own lives – only 1.8% of patients in the contact group had committed suicide, compared, sadly, with 3.52% in the control group.
Even 13 years after hospital discharge, patients who had received letters from the hospital still had lower rates of suicide than those who had not. People in the contact group sent back messages, such as,“You will never know what your little notes mean to me. I always think someone cares about what happens to me, even if my family did kick me out,” and “it gives me great pleasure to know that someone is concerned.”
Having been touched by depression, and rocked by news of suicides, I wondered if I could do something similar using my website as a place to write to people, reminding them that they matter and someone is thinking about them. I can not write to each individual who may be suffering, but we all go through so many common experiences, I felt words of understanding may be of some use. So, I wrote a letter.
I promised myself I would write one a week, and people could sign up to have them sent to their email or they could just pop onto my blog and read them.
Each letter I have written (I am up to 18 so far) has been written either to someone in my life having an experience, or to myself, using my own experience as a guide as to what may help as it would have helped me.
What I didn’t expect were the responses from people I have never met who are reading my letters from all over the world.
Emails came to me with words telling of emotional pain and isolation, and how reading the letter captured how they were feeling. I have written to people doing through the death of someone, or divorce, or illness and dark thoughts.
An exchange student wrote to me tell me of her homesickness and loneliness, and how the letter made her feel comforted. Another person told me of a young loved one's death from cancer, and the pain of the loss of someone whose life was yet to be fully lived.
In an article in The New Yorker, Dr Jerome Motto recounts a story of a patient of his. He (Motto) had a patient who committed suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner,” he said. “The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’ ”Motto said, “That was it. It’s so needless, the number of people who are lost.”
So that is why I write these letters. I hope resilience is contagious. I want to remind people they can get through tough times, and the kind of experience that is causing them to suffer is understood by someone, and that they matter. Because in the end, connection is everything and without it we lose ourselves, and sometimes even our lives.
Kate Forster is an author in Melbourne. You can find her letters at www.kateforster.com
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