When told of my son’s sudden suicide, people often ask me how on earth it is possible to carry on living after your child takes his or her life. The honest answer is that I don’t know. Somehow you keep breathing while contemplating your own suicide, keep doing the next thing without letting yourself think beyond whatever that is. For the longest time you don’t live, you just exist.
In the weeks after Toran’s death I made three medically serious suicide attempts. Given that I had been prescribed five psychoactive drugs to ‘treat’ my grief, that’s hardly surprising. And then something happened that gave me no choice but to put my plans for my own death on hold – mental health services began to target my son’s girlfriend. She was called repeatedly and urged to seek help and a prescription for Prozac to assist her with her grief. Her parents and school counsellor were contacted and urged to get her on to medication.
At that time my world was as uncertain a place as it is possible to imagine. There was no doubt in my mind however that my son would want me to do everything I could to ensure that she did not take the drug that had killed him. I began to put together the information I believed she needed to make a fully informed decision on taking the drug including information on how grief, along with most of our moods and behaviours following trauma and distress, is what makes us human, not what makes us mad.
In New Zealand there is no Black Box warning on antidepressants. The packets contain no information leaflet outlining risks and possible adverse effects. Despite being one of only two countries in the world that allows these drugs to be advertised on TV, doctors do not warn their patients of the risks of suicide, homicide, mania, psychosis and all the other potential adverse reactions known to be associated with them.
In 2010 1.3million antidepressants were prescribed to 485,000 New Zealanders. There was a 140% increase in prescribing to babies and children aged 0-4 years. These figures do not include hospital based prescriptions or prescriptions for the unsubsidised drugs that appear on our television in advertisements that exhort consumers to ask their doctor for the drug by name.
Some time later, having teamed up with another mum who had lost her child to suicide, this desire to share with others the knowledge that underpins fully informed consent and which is rarely provided to consumers, became the basis for a non-profit organisation. In August 2010 we launched CASPER, Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education & Research.
CASPER’s mission involved three key streams of work:
1. Reclaiming suicide prevention from psychiatrists and providing information and support to families and communities who rightfully and most effectively lead this work.
2. Educating politicians and opinion leaders on the efficacy of a social rather than mental health approach to suicide prevention.
3. Providing support for families through inquests and other inquiries into the deaths of their loved ones to ensure that truth, accountability and change are achieved.
In the past 18 months, CASPER has travelled New Zealand delivering free information presentations to communities around the country. Giving families and communities the information we didn’t have before our children died and that we believe could have saved their lives. We have met with the Prime Minister, his Chief Science Adviser, the Commissioner for Children, the Families Commission and numerous politicians. We have achieved our goal of being a go-to agency for the media for any stories associated with suicide. We have brought two international researchers to New Zealand to discuss the links between psychoactive drugs and suicide.
Along the way we have collected three skilled and dedicated colleagues, over 2200 families bereaved by suicide and supporters and joined with other families bereaved by suicide across Canada, the US and the UK.
We have published the CASPER Suicide Prevention Strategy a document that sets out the literature underpinning a sociological approach to suicide prevention, secured a million dollar sponsorship deal and most importantly given our beloved children a legacy that saves the lives of others.
That’s how we keep taking the next breath, putting one foot in front of the other and finding some sort of purpose in continuing to live. You can check out our work at www.casper.org.nz and on our facebook page at www.facebook.com/Caspercommunity