My trip to Mauritius in 2010 was an adventure like no other and undoubtedly one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life. A three-week break which coincided with the Mauritian & UK General Elections and included my notorious ten-day long 30th birthday party. Yet it was a conversation with my dad on the eve of the British General Election that was almost certainly to provide the most treasured of memories.
Here we were: sitting on a balcony overlooking Grand Baie, accompanied by a bottle of mineral water which he had filled with coconut water that had been mixed with Goodwills Rum; our conversations drifted and eventually arrived onto the subject of his two late brothers- Alex and Claude. My two uncles, practically unspoken about within the family circles, mythical creatures I had heard snippets about from time to time. They had both committed suicide.
I adopted Alex as my middle-name in my early-teens despite knowing so little about him. I was fascinated as my dad began filling in the vast gaps, a picture painted of two individuals that I bore an uncanny resemblance to. Alex would take my dad to the West-End clubs and was always the life and soul of any party. Claude was quieter but intelligent and ultra-aware of the world around him, whose ambition and focus would mean he was always setting himself targets and deadlines in life. It was a surreal conversation: hearing about two uncles I didn’t know but somehow had cloned in terms of my characteristics. I can still picture my dad smiling at the end of the conversation; he appreciated the irony of how things had turned out too. The spirit of two tragic souls had somehow found an outlet in me.
Claude had taken his life long before I was born while Alex died when I was two. Alex collected the rent on behalf of his flatmates to pay the landlord where he lived. He had his eyes opened to gambling by my dad who introduced him to the world of horseracing. Alex developed a taste for his newfound pastime and enjoyed some good days and bad days, but there were no obvious signs that he was in any danger. One day Alex lost more than he could afford to lose and made a calamitous decision to use the money he had collected on behalf of his landlord to try and win the money back. He lost that money too, was too embarrassed to tell anyone so electrocuted himself. This became a Lebrasse family folk tale with the moral of the story being that ‘you never ever gambled’.
What was essentially a very simplistic explanation about something enormously complicated was further compounded by the fact that me and nearly all my cousins attended catholic schools as children, where such naked indoctrination knew no boundaries. Life was deemed sacred and people who committed suicide were almost certainly doomed to burning in hell for undertaking an act they had no right to sanction. By my mid-teens I had a very narrow grasp of suicide and a profound lack of understanding which led to me viewing suicidal people with contempt. Shameless attention seekers who wreaked untold grief upon the people they left behind. It was probably considering an issue like assisted suicides that really unsettled my catholic vision of the world. I could not comprehend how it could be wrong for somebody to wish to have an end to their suffering, and yet my catholic education told me that they had no right to take their own life. But who has the right to demand that their suffering should be prolonged? Who has the authority to condemn any creature to such a fate?
When I was 21, my godson’s mother told me she had lost her sister in similarly traumatic circumstances, intentionally consuming alcohol while on anti-depressants to instantly stop her heartbeat. I allowed my mind to wander beyond the rigid parameters that had defined my understanding of what suicide means and to consider in very different terms the situation that leads to somebody taking their own life. Of course this coincided with a period in my life where I had begun to reject the catholic teachings on a whole range of issues from abortion to homophobia to birth control, so I was open to having my perception of the world challenged and scrutinised.
It’s laughable to think that if Claude had taken his life just over a decade earlier, he would’ve committed a criminal offence. In fact it’s only relatively recently that the subject of suicide escaped its pariah status as a social taboo, and I often reference Gary Speed’s death as an especially important stage in that evolutionary process. It was the first time I could detect the issue of physically healthy individuals taking their lives being analysed as a consequence of a mental illness. It was reassuring and as tragic as Speed’s untimely passing was, it was a significant milestone.
Much like the day when society realised that if somebody observes that they can hear voices from within their head, they are unwell and not possessed by Satan as had once been suggested. We can talk about suicide and we can refer to the deceased in terms of being a victim. We no longer have to pander to stereotypes and entertain the notion that the individual is a coward or selfish or both. But ignorance of mental health illnesses continues to be a significant problem in Britain as I have mentioned previously. More men under the age of 45 die from suicide in the UK than crime or natural causes and it is a problem which disproportionately affects a larger number of men. Yet to pigeonhole the issue would be to demonstrate an inept failure to grasp how it affects far too many. Such as the 30 women a day who attempt suicide while in abusive relationships, or the 34,500 children who contacted Childline in the 12 months to April 2014 with concerns about suicide. Or how the current Government’s ruthless austerity programme has led to some very alarming cases of suicide surfacing, a result of the incompetent assessment procedures managed by ATOS.
It is all the more distressing when we appreciate just how stretched mental health services in England and Wales are due to funding cuts. That should be a national scandal, but as a nation we never seem to react when these deplorable measures are taken. Instead we reserve our outrage for when Christopher Clunis randomly attacks a commuter at a tube station. Something has seriously gone wrong when a tax over a pasty gets more attention than the state of our mental health provisions reaching crisis point. We’d never tolerate other healthcare services being similarly slashed, so why do we accept it for mental health services?