What happens after you attempt suicide?

Shannon Gray draws on personal experience to explain what services are available for those who have attempted to take their own lives.

TW: this article discusses suicide and self harm.

When I was 16 years old, my father had to drive me to our nearest accident and emergency unit for an illness he didn’t know I had. For years, I had been suffering from depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder, all undiagnosed, all of which I had been hiding.

I refused to let anyone know how broken I was, partially so no one would pity me, and mostly because there was such a stigma around mentally ill teenagers that I would rather suffer in silence than speak up and be mocked. I struggled for years to maintain the facade of being unbothered; I would make fun of myself before other people had the chance, I would be loud and bubbly so no one would think they’d bullied me into passivity, I changed myself into a person I couldn’t recognise. And one day, that person collapsed and my hidden illnesses were taking their toll far more than anyone could have known. It was at this stage that I decided to take my own life. I failed.

When I arrived at A and E we waited for hours. Attempted suicide was a ‘minor ailment’, and therefore I was low on their list of priorities. When I was finally seen, I was taken into a small assessment room where they apparently ran identical tests on all patients regardless of their reason for visiting – they tested my blood pressure, they listened to my heart, they put me on a heart-rate monitor. Then the personal questioning began: what method did you use? Why did you do it? Why did it fail? It was invasive. It was personal. It was the emotional equivalent of being on a treadmill with a broken leg. But it was necessary, and I knew that. I had to be able to talk about what I’d been through in order to recover.

When I had answered every question they had, I was sent back to the waiting room. Another hour or so later, my name was called again. This time, I was met by my crisis team support worker.  I didn’t know what they were at the time, but a crisis team is a group of individuals who come together to support you throughout your mental health crisis in your own environment – at home, school, or work – and they set out a foundation for your treatment following your crisis. I was nervous. I had to bare my soul to her, I told her everything I’d been through, how it had all built up, how I had been struggling for years. She took notes, but mostly she just listened to me. She made me feel safe, cared for, and understood. Over the next few days, she would visit me at both my house and my school – though I didn’t know it at the time, I suspect that she was trying to locate the source of my trauma, trying to understand what had caused my illnesses to reach a level of such severity. Truth be told I didn’t really have an answer for that myself, and it’s hard to point someone in the right direction without knowing which direction that could be.

She made me feel safe, cared for, and understood

My support worker also spoke to my parents, which was I assume partially to help them understand me, and partially to help alleviate my anxieties around telling my parents how I felt. The older generations haven’t always been clued up about mental health, particularly in teenagers, and the last thing I wanted was to air my grievances only to be shot down with a “don’t all teenagers feel that way?”. This way, I at least wasn’t alone in having to explain myself. I think her presence helped them to know that whatever was happening, it was more real than just teenage drama.

It was also my crisis team support worker who arranged for my psychiatric evaluation, which took place a week after I’d attempted to take my own life. This was what terrified me. I had tried several times to speak up about how I felt to friends and teachers, only for them to paint me as an attention seeking liar. I was too fragile to hear that again. So when the doctor began asking his questions, personal and invasive, I shrunk in on myself, I looked at the floor, and I twiddled with the thread of my jumper. Perhaps it was this shyer, nervous demeanor that influenced his diagnosis, or maybe it was merely the time constraints he was under – after all, everyone wants a quick fix to save a suicidal 16 year old.

Within our hour long appointment, he focused only on my suicidal ideation, my self harm scars, and my low mood, ignoring my explosive anger, my extreme mood swings, my self-destructive impulsive behaviour, my psychosis, and my anxiety attacks. He diagnosed me with clinical depression, set up a psychotherapy appointment for me within a week, and handed me a prescription. Suddenly I’d gone from having no mental health help whatsoever, to having everything I needed to get better put in place.

It wasn’t perfect – two years later I found out that two illnesses had been missed during my diagnosis, one of which was very severe: anxiety and borderline personality disorder. The problem, of course, was not in the failings of the doctor himself, but in the failings of the NHS to provide us with anything more than a rushed diagnosis. Doctors are given an hour at most to diagnose mental health problems, which is not only far too little an amount of time to truly know what someone is going through, but it is also far too little an amount of time to have patients on 6-12 month waiting lists for. Do patients have to be in crisis just to be able to get treatment? We deserve more. Every person suffering from mental illness deserves more.

These services save lives. I am alive. And I am only alive because of the care and support I gained from the NHS. The people who helped me overcome my crisis let me know that sometimes suicide is not the end. People who attempt suicide are not lost causes, and we are not without hope. We can get better. We are survivors, and we should be proud of that. So please, if you are feeling suicidal, call 111, or if you need to talk to someone, call Samaritans on 116 123.