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Staring into darkness

The story of Headteacher Ruth Perry's suicide is one of despair and being overwhelmed by a loss of hope. What can you do if it feels like everything is crumbling beneath your feet?

A distorted face is constructed from thousands of what look like electrical wires in waves, and it emerges in relief from the background like a mask

'Heartbreaking' doesn't come close. A dedicated Headteacher from a widely admired and popular primary school, someone described by her staff as a "rock", ends her life after government School Inspectors identify some shortcomings in her school's performance and downgrade it from 'Outstanding' (the highest grade) to 'Inadequate' (the lowest). Ruth, who had run the school for 13 years, and had been a pupil there herself, spiralled at top speed into a catastrophic depression and despair. Reports suggest that she was worried that the downgrade - handed out after the school performed poorly on one of a range of key measures - would result in the school being converted to Academy status and that she and others in the leadership team would be sacked. After an awful Christmas, and less than two months after the inspection, Ruth killed herself. One of the saddest aspects of a relentlessly sad story are the reports that Ruth and her husband did seek help from mental health services and from her GP, but, according to The Guardian, 'Perry found herself unable to share the most significant factor in her mental deterioration with psychiatric counsellors, for fear of further punishment by Ofsted'. A picture emerges of a woman sinking into despair, perhaps unable to think straight and feeling deeply alone, as she awaited the publication of the Ofsted report. She was bound, or so she believed, by Ofsted's requirement to keep confidential the outcome of an inspection until it was publicly released, even tragically to the point of her own death. The knowledge of what she saw as impending disaster was one she was asked to carry moreorless alone.

Exactly what the legal obligations are on a Headteacher to keep confidentiality under these dreadful circumstances seem hazy and certainly require more investigation. It is of course inconceivable that someone be expected to abide by this requirement to the point of jeopardising their own life. Every Code of Practice governing the psychotherapy profession states that what passes between someone and their psychotherapist will be kept confidential by the latter (except in some very specific and rare circumstances, which, in the case of therapists, are explained up front). Equally, there are privacy laws that underpin confidentiality when talking to a GP. I feel certain that any ethical professional in these roles, on hearing Ruth's story, would not have shared it and that her fear that it would reach the ears of Ofsted and make a bad situation worse was not founded in reality. But that is it seems what she thought could happen. She was clearly desperate; we cannot know all the details and nor should we - a private tragedy for a family that was spread all over the newspapers... As a practising therapist, and someone who has worked in a residential centre for those feeling suicidal (some of whom had previously attempted it, perhaps several times), Ruth's story has encouraged me to think again about some ways to find a way out of the pit of hopelessness that might describe wanting to kill yourself. I draw not only on my time being with people who have felt it, or their version of it, but my own, during a very dark period of my life twenty years ago.

I offer these thoughts with humility - everyone is different, every story is unique. I'm not offering a magic bullet, because the idea of one is ludicrous of course. But if you are facing something right now that seems completely overwhelming, if you are thiking that the only way out is to end it all, or if you know someone you are concerned about here are some thoughts that might, I hope, be of use

#1 Just because you can't find a way out of the mental pain you are in right now, does not mean that there isn't a way.

When things get really bad, obsessive rumination can take over. You can find yourself turning over the same questions, again and again. How did I get into this situation? How could this have happened? Why didn't I make different choices? What the hell am I going to do? Questions can swirl around seeking answers that, depleted and exhausted as you are, you just cannot find. And maybe because you can't seem to find those answers no matter how hard you try, another set of questions, like Why am I such a loser? or How come I always end up here? or Why am I so worthless? might follow after, rushing into that empty space in your mind left vacant by just not being able to figure out how the hell you are going to keep going...

When this happens, the mind can play tricks on you that can feel dreadfully convincing, but which simply are not true.

As we go over and over things, the patterns that we use to make sense (even an awful, despairing sense) of something become more and more established. Neural pathways in the brain connect and reconnect, bathed in chemicals and accompanied by our distress. Those patterns might be based on all sorts of things - how life has long felt for you, how your job or role is supposed to operate (but just doesn't), how your family is arranged, where you were supposed to be by now. It could be any number of things, but somewhere there's possibly going to be a feeling of loss, of your needs not being met, of life dealing you a hand that you don't deserve, or you just cannot cope with. Somewhere in there also, there may also be pathways which have formed to suggest that if x happens, then the pain of it will be intolerable. Perhaps, if I lose this job, I am done for, or if this relationship ends then I will have nothing and no-one, or if my business goes bust then it will all have been for nothing, or if I don't put up with this abuse I will be alone and I cannot bear that. A set of terrible 'expectations' that are now working to interpret what's going on for you.

What you are experiencing when this happens isn't usually the whole truth, or sometimes even much of it. You're experiencing a series of mental patterns. It can be hard to be able to get outside this patterning in the mind - one of the obvious characteristics of our minds is that, well, they are our minds and they feel like us. But they work on rails for much of the time, connecting events up all the time, trying to find clear and simple meanings to things that happen, even if those meanings are awful and based only an incomplete read of the situation. We like to believe in the meanings we give ourselves, even if those meanings are wrong.

Now this isn't in any way to suggest that what's happening in your life isn't really hard and difficult to deal with. It likely is. The point is that this type of thinking might actually be making the situation worse, not better, by taking you, over and over, to the same, despairing conclusion. That conclusion might feel inevitable - think of it as a path through the woods that you've often taken and has the grass stamped down by your feet over and over, becoming clear and easy to follow. That path always leads to the same place. But because of the mental patterns described above, what you, in your sadness and loneliness, may not be able to see if that another answer, another outcome, another path, may be possible even if you cannot see it right now. So try and put down the expectation of trying to see it right now. Put down, if you can, the need to answer, when your mind shrieks what am I going to do?! Sit down, breathe and say to yourself 'I may not be able to find a way through this right now, but that is because I have nothing to draw on mentally right now, not because there will be no way through this'. Hold on to that thought if you can. Stay with it. Because if other ways forward, other paths, might be out there, even if they're not yet visible, even if all you can do is just try and accept that they might be there despite you not yet seeing them yet, then you do not have to take that old path to the same, despairing place yet again. And that's a reason to stay alive.

#2 Feeling suicidal can be understood as pain and distress overwhelming your capacity to deal with that pain and distress. But you can do something to start to fix that.

Picture a weighing scales. On one side of the scale is your pain and distress. On the other side are your coping resources to deal with that pain.

If the pain has loaded itself onto one side

of the scales, that side is going to tip down.

It doesn't mean that you're weak, or wrong, or mad, or worthless. It's just a kind of psychological physics - meaning that you are facing more pain that you can cope with, given the resources you have right now. And don't let anyone tell you that what you've been going through shouldn't have had this effect on you, because everyone is different. Something that one person has the resources and support to cope with can feel disastrous to another. It might simply be to do with the hand you've been dealt. Fixing this means doing one of two things. You can either try and remove some of the weight on that pain side, or - and this might make more sense if you can't see a way of doing that right now - you can try and add to your coping resources. Anything you can do is worth doing. It might not 'fix' things, sure. It might not make a dramatic difference on its own. But it might make things feel slightly different. The direction of travel of these two weights in this weighing scales will start to go the other way. The pain side will edge up just a bit, the resources side will drop down a bit, giving you some more strength. The relationship changes, in your favour.

Just doing something can have an effect on your mind that's been telling you that there's no point trying do anything. What might that be? Phone someone - a friend, a relative, a trusted colleague. WhatsApp or text them even. Tell them how you are feeling. They might have something helpful or supportive to offer you. Even if they don't know the answers, now you've got the resource of another person on your team as well, not just for the duration of your call, or the text exchange, but afterwards. Now they know what's going on for you. That's resource you've added. If you can't think of anyone to reach out too, have a look at some of the links at the bottom of the page and reach out to one of them. Of course, the people who run these services and phone lines will have never met you, but they do care. That's why they do the work they do. They'll have heard people talking as you do before, people who did get through this. They'll listen. Some people reading this bit might think, 'I don't want to be a burden'. I have never met you either, but take it from me, you're not. You're just a human being going through some really hard things. Where's the rule that says when we need help in life we cannot ask for it? And maybe try and turn that thinking around? If it was a friend or close relation of yours was feeling this way, wouldn't you want them to try and reach you rather than assume you'd just think of them as a burden? #3 If you are in crisis, say, 'I will wait'. For a day, for a couple of days, for a week...

If you have reached rock bottom, and you are about to act to end your life, try and say to yourself, 'I will wait'. Try and bring what you are doing, and thinking, to a stop and just give yourself a pause. Put some distance between your feelings and your actions. Remember that feeling that you want to do something does not mean that you have to act on that feeling. You know this from other feelings you have experienced, however intense, and the same is true now.

Although it may not be possible for you to say 'I'm not going to go through with this at all', it might be possible to say, 'I'm not going to do it now'. Tell yourself that you will wait, for a day, for a couple of days, even perhaps a week or more. Then do something. At the very least, change the situation you are in at that exact moment. Change the place you are in. Take a walk round the park. Watch a movie. Go into the kitchen and clean the dishes. Hoover. Wash some clothes. Anything to make a change and get your mind focusing on something else for a while. Better still, make that call, connect with someone, share your feelings with them, add a little to your coping resource. Realise that all the time that you are not acting on those feelings of wanting to kill yourself is a demonstration that you do not have to act on those feelings. You are showing the truth of that to yourself.

#4 Let the steam out of the pressure cooker - keep talking.

If you can get a conversation going with someone - a friend, a GP, a loved one, a colleague - try and do it again if you can. The despair and isolation inside can operate like a pressure cooker. If the heat underneath is increasing and the lid is tightly shut, eventually the pressure will cause an explosion, no matter how well clamped down it was. But a careful release of the pressure can make all the difference, especially as you give yourself a little more time - time to allow other options or ways forward to appear. Talking to a therapist or a counsellor is an option too - there are some websites below to get you started.

Whatever is going on for you I wish you all the luck in the world. As the saying goes, 'When you're going through hell, keep going'.

We have never met, but I am sending compasssion and strength to you if times feel dark. Keep going. Now, please reach out to someone...

****** Jo Shaw is a therapist seeing clients face-to-face in London and online from across the UK.

She can be reached at Content of this post with acknowldgements to


Links (UK)

If your life is in danger right now, phone 999 for an ambulance, go straight to A&E, or get someone to take you there. Find your nearest A&E here

The Samaritans

Call: 116 123

Papyrus UK

Papyrus focuses on supporting people under 35 who are feeling suicidal

Call: 0800 068 4141Text: 07860 039967

Though Papyrus works with young people, this downloadable safety plan is a document that could be of help to anyone who is prone to feeling suicidal.

Support for under 25s

Text: THEMIX to 85258 Call: 0808 808 4994 - for 11-25s, (4pm-11pm Monday to Friday)

National Suicide Prevention Line

Call: 0800 689 5652 (24/7 for over 18s) SOS

Call: 0808 115 1505 (8pm - Midnight Monday to Friday, 4pm - Midnight Saturday/Sunday)

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)

Call: 0800 58 58 58 (5pm - Midnight every day)

Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline

Call: 0800 0119 100 (10am -  10pm every day)


For trans, non-binary and gender-diverse children and their families

Call: 0808 801 0400 (9am - 9pm Monday - Friday) Counselling and Therapy Counselling Directory A search portal with therapists and counsellors all over the UK

The Listening Place

A free counselling service with several locations in London British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy

The BACP site has a search feature for therapists in your area

British Psychological Society

The BPS site has a search feature for psychologists in your area


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