Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Michael Abrahams | Empathy for the suicidal

Published:Monday | June 18, 2018 | 12:05 AM

It was 2:30 am and I was sleeping soundly but was awakened by the familiar default ringtone of my iPhone. I glanced at the screen and, on seeing a familiar name, promptly took the call. It was Andrene*, and it was happening again. She wanted to kill herself.

To many of us, suicide is deemed to be a stupid act. However, to the suicidal, the option of ceasing to exist on the planet may appear to be logical and appealing. Persons with suicidal ideation and those who have attempted the act, including ones who have been successful, are often judged harshly. Accusations of being selfish are not uncommon, with religious folk often condemning them to eternal hellfire for committing an unforgiveable sin.

Suicide may be difficult to understand, but if we really want to, we can. When I reflect on Andrene’s life and her experiences, I do understand her mindset. I empathize with her but do my best to be supportive and discouraged her, especially because she has a young son, who would be devastated should she decide to make an exit.

Her life has been a sinuous journey, fraught with trauma and tragedy. Her parents had a turbulent relationship and parted when she and her sister were very young. She initially lived with her mother, whom her father accused of being negligent and irresponsible.

According to Andrene, her mother was a “party girl”, and she recalls being left at home when she was four years old, along with her younger sibling, while her mother went out to enjoy herself. On one occasion, she remembers a family member coming by and handing her food through a locked grill, while her mother was out galivanting.

She also recalls an incident when her mother confronted her in a church yard and quizzed her about what her father had been saying about her. Her mother had been sitting on a large rock and threatened to drop it on the child if she did not comply with her wishes. Terrified, she screamed loudly, attracting the attention of nearby church folk, who intervened before she could be harmed.

This was the last straw for her father, who decided to take her and her sister away from her abusive mother. But the girls were not under their father’s care for long. His life came to an abrupt and bloody end when their mother shot him to death. She pleaded insanity and escaped a murder charge, and the girls were sent to live with the mother of the woman their father was having a relationship with.

And the abuse continued. The physical abuse was distressing enough, but the verbal and emotional abuse was even more damaging. The woman delighted in telling the girls that their father’s side of the family wished to have nothing to do with them. They were light-skinned, and the woman, who had a very dark complexion, appeared to have colour/shade issues, referring to the children as “brown dead lef pickney”. 

Andrene recalls an incident when she and her sister were dancing to the song “Love Me Browning” by Buju Banton, which was being played on the radio, when the woman entered the room, shouted “A lie di DJ a tell”, and smashed the radio, which had belonged to her, in a rage. She would also accuse the girls of being whores, long before they commenced sexual activity.

Then there was the sexual abuse. She recalls being sexually molested by a man at a church meeting, and later by the man her father’s ex-girlfriend was dating, causing her to run away from home.

Despite these emotional obstacles, she managed to graduate from high school and university, and became a mother. However, the father of her child was abusive to her, and she sought refuge at the Women’s Centre (a shelter for abused girls and women) on at least one occasion after being on the receiving end of a brutal beating from him. By this time, she had been heavily abusing alcohol and tobacco in an effort to cope with her harsh reality.

An objective examination of Andrene’s life will reveal that she has been set up not only for depression and other mood and psychological disorders, as well as substance abuse, but also for suicide.

A landmark study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), performed between 1995 and 1997 in the United States of America, examined the correlation between childhood trauma and physical and psychological illness later in life. Ten adverse childhood experiences, under the headings “abuse”, “neglect”, and “exposure to dysfunction in the home”, were investigated, and participants assigned scores of zero to ten. Researchers found that the higher the score, the greater the likelihood of disease and dysfunction in adulthood. An ACE score of 7 or more increases the risk of suicide attempts 30-fold in adulthood. Andrene’s ACE score is 8. She is lucky to be alive. After pleading with her, she in now on medication and contemplating re-starting therapy.

If you were to meet Andrene, it is unlikely that you would suspect her level of torment. She has a pretty face, a beautiful smile, puts herself together well, is articulate and extremely intelligent. It is important to understand that you may never know what people are going through. Outward appearances often deceive us. Swedish DJ Avicii, fashion designer Kate Spade and chef and author Anthony Bourdain were wildly successful and had careers many can only dream of. But they were battling their demons.

People with suicidal ideation usually suffer from mental anguish and pain that most of us may never be able to relate to. Like the rest of us, they desire peace, and may be so tormented that they will do whatever they can to achieve it, and they figure that if they do not exist, then they can no longer suffer. The suicidal are deserving of our empathy, not our judgment.

*Name changed to protect anonymity.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.