It was a normal March day in Wiltshire when Heather Chetwynd climbed into the loft of her family home to get the shotgun that would take her life.
As her husband left for work that day, Heather seemed in a happy mood, asking him what he wanted for tea when he got home. But somewhere between breakfast and tea-time, Heather’s mood changed, something - it emerged in the inquest into her death – that had been happening in the two years since she started going through the menopause.
According to the Daily Mail who reported on the case, at the inquest, Heather’s husband Robert said: “The menopause caused my wife to have severe mood swings, and her attitude would change almost daily.” From being a “lively and bubbly person”, Heather became so depressed that she told her husband she wished she could disappear in a puff of smoke.
Heather was 52, a wife and a mum of two.
It’s a heart-breaking story, because it could be any of us. Any woman reading this who has felt the despair that the menopause can bring will know how desperate Heather felt that day. When it comes to the menopause, we have all heard about the hot flushes and the brain fog; but feeling depressed to the point of suicide is not something that is usually talked about. It should. Because it’s real. The way we talk about menopause in general is a real problem.
The tragic news of designer Kate Spade’s death in America earlier this year was overshadowed with its breathless, gossipy news coverage, which focused on theories on how the 55 year-old businesswoman took her life. Much was made of the fact that she was a mother, with column inches dedicated to passive aggressively criticizing her actions because of this, rather than discussing the depressive illness that drove her to the point where could no longer bear to live. She too, in her own way, wanted to “disappear in a puff of smoke”. Both women were offered help but didn’t take it; whether it was because they didn’t like taking drugs and were worried about HRT as was reported in Heather’s case, or because they worried that people would find out they were suffering with depression, as alleged in the case of Kate. Either reason is devastating, because with support, advice and the removal of shame over admitting they were struggling, two women would be alive today.
Sadly, Heather and Kate are not alone. In figures released last week by the Office of National statistics, females aged 50-54 years had the highest suicide rate among women ((6.8 per 100,000 females) in 2017. The age when most women go through the menopause is 51; a time when changing hormone levels can bring about mood swings, depression, loss of sense of self and feelings of worthlessness. It’s an age when some women feel their most vulnerable and invisible, caught in the middle-aged ‘sandwich’ of teenage children and elderly parents – who have their own needs and wants which many times it’s left to mum to fix.
Changing how we talk about both of these delicate issues – suicide and the menopause – is something that has to start from the top down, as the daily drip-feeding of offensive and upsetting language used by the media does subliminal and lasting damage that isn’t seen until it is too late. Despite what the childish mantra says about sticks and stones, words really can hurt. That’s why the casual defamation of menopausal women in the press may not seem like a big deal, but like death by paper cuts, it only takes one final, seemingly inconsequential comment to tip a vulnerable person over the edge. The very use of the word as a derogatory term earlier this year by the deputy governor of the Bank of England Ben Broadbent, when he called the current state of the economy “menopausal” and “past its peak” was just one example of lazy, glib terminology that has embedded itself so deeply into our consciousness that it’s not considered wrong, merely a little inelegant.
But our use of language has stronger consequences than that, and it’s our everyday terminology which cuts the deepest. We may have made great strides in some areas – words that were as commonplace in the playground as they were in the workplace have been erased from casual use – but we still have a way to go. Seeing these words written down now are shocking; so shocking that I have deliberately not used them here. They are disgusting terms that used to be bandied about without a thought. And that’s the point. Without a thought. These horrible words which referred to a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or disability were drip, drip, dripped into our consciousness, their sting numbed by over-use and repetition in jest. These words, and others like them, were used in everyday conversation, making them seem benign, but to those they referred to, they were cancerous, spreading unspoken unease and unhappiness. Thankfully those words have gone from casual use, but others remain.
Kate Spade’s suicide shone a light on just how horribly wrong the terminology we use to report the death of someone by their own hand really is. Graphic accounts of how and where she died, and speculation over why she decided she no longer wanted to live filled the news stands and airways with language as upsetting to the family she left behind as it was to vulnerable people hearing them.
The words we use to talk about someone in death are as important as those we use to describe them in life, and that’s why today, on World Suicide Prevention Day a letter written by MP Luciana Berger and journalist Bryony Gordon has been sent to editors across the UK, asking that they pledge to be mindful of the language they use when reporting suicide in this country. It’s a hugely important letter, and one that I was honoured to add my name to, along with other mental health campaigners and broadcasters such as Stephen Fry, Fearne Cotton and Matt Haig.
The most recent Samaritans report says that there were 6,213 suicides in 2017. That’s the equivalent of one jumbo jet a month, filled with passengers, each one a loved family member - a husband, a wife, a daughter, or a son - silently falling from the sky. Seeing each one of these deaths sensationally reported as a ‘committed’ act causes huge upset to those left behind, as it subliminally refers to the action of taking one’s own life as a crime, which it has not been since 1961. This letter asks that journalists use the term ‘died by suicide’ instead, which is powerful but without judgement.
Death by suicide rarely happens because of one singular thing; those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one this way know that it is a culmination of feelings and circumstances which lead to a life being taken. Those of us who have experienced suicidal thoughts know that those feelings of hopelessness about life and the future stem in part from a loss of sense of self – who am I if I am not who I used to be? Bryony Gordon, who has spoken openly and with eloquent honesty about her experiences says: “I think that the more we can talk about suicide, the better. Talking about suicide doesn't make it more likely to happen, but not talking about it does. Suicidal thoughts can be really frightening - I know, I've had them myself. They are, in a way, the last taboo of mental health. But all of us can help save lives by speaking openly and honestly about them.”
Suicide is the last taboo of mental health, and the menopause is the last taboo of the female condition; it is not a stretch to see that the one thingthat can help bring about the change that is so desperately needed in both is language. Communication. Our use of words. “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word” said the poet Emily Dickinson. Words matter. Use them wisely.
If you need to speak to someone in confidence, please call Samaritans on 116 123 www.samaritans.org