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Two years after Greg's death, she speaks to journalist Zara Potts, who was a close friend of the couple, about the on-going need to talk openly about mental health and suicide.
It's been just over two years since Greg died. Why do you feel it's the right time to talk about some of the issues around suicide?
I think we need to talk about depression more. I have had a lot of emails recently from people who have had severe depression and come through the worst of it and I've also heard from people who have lost loved ones to depression and I think it's time we started to talk more openly and honestly about this and try to take away some of the stigma attached to it. For me personally, it's been just over two years since Greg died and it was such a tragedy to have lost him, not only for me but for his family and friends, that I want to try to find something good to come from it, and if that means opening myself up and making myself vulnerable by trying to break some of the silence around suicide and if that can help other people, then that's something positive.
When Greg died there was a lot of talk around depression and how depression manifests, but in Greg's case he wasn't showing the typical signs of what we associate with depression, was he?
No, he wasn't. He wasn't a typical sufferer of depression. We associate depression with a lack of vitality, someone who can't get up in the morning, someone who is sad and shows no interest in life – these are the signs we are told to look out for. But what if that person doesn't show any of these signs? Greg was the opposite of what we are told to look for – he was energetic, he always went to work, and he was always helping other people. That shows me how little we really know about this illness. He had told me from the beginning of our relationship that he suffered from depression, but even though I knew this, I didn't know all the faces of this illness, and so when there were difficulties, I never put it down to depression, I put it down to his having a strong character. I only realised the year that he died that these aspects of what I thought were his temperament, like moodiness and irritability, were actually signs of his illness. I didn't recognise them as depression as such.
And that makes it sometimes difficult to help that person, doesn't it?
It's very difficult because you want to help but sometimes it's hard to help someone who isn't comfortable about asking for help. It's also difficult if that person is not showing the typical signs of depression. If you can see someone is in distress, then obviously you try to help them, but if that person is being moody or irritable, you feel pushed away. If we knew that these were signs of depression, then perhaps it would make it less confusing for the people close to them. It makes me so sad when I think of people with depression because I think they feel that they need to handle it all by themselves and that is such a lonely game. It's easy to say that they should ask for help, but for a lot of people accepting help is one of the hardest things to do. It's hard also for the people around them because it's not an illness you can see. If you have a broken arm, people give you the help you need instinctively but with depression, it's harder to know what help you can give when you can't see what it is that's troubling someone.
We also hear that people who are depressed should reach out and talk to people about how they are feeling and that if you know someone is depressed you should reach out to them – but again, in Greg's case, he did talk about it, he didn't hide it from those he was close to, did he?
It never felt like he was hiding anything, but at the same time, I don't think he really expressed how bad he felt a lot of the time, and I believe this was because he didn't want to worry anyone around him. And maybe he, himself, didn't really understand what was going on. He was a very private person and he wasn't one of those people who, if they have a headache, have to let the world know about it. He didn't complain about every little thing that was wrong.
Yes, right down to making sure he ate well. When he died, I spent a lot of time wondering what we could have done better, and I thought about how the professional advice is to check in and ask your loved one how they're feeling. But what if they don't really want to tell you that they feel bad? Especially if they're doing all the things they're supposed to be doing and yet they're not feeling any better. I think they then start to feel like they've failed. In theory, it's a good idea to ask people how they're feeling but, in reality, I don't think that's enough.
We live in a time where if there's something wrong we seek to fix it with the help of medication. If we have a cold, we take Vitamin C. If we go to the doctor and say our mood is low, they'll often prescribe an anti-depressant. Do you think in some ways, medication is seen as a cure-all and that in doing this, we're not looking at addressing the problems behind depression?
I think a lot of people see medication as being like a magic pill that will make everything better and, a lot of the time, it does help people but sometimes it doesn't. In many cases, you are treating the symptoms, rather than the cause. Clearly Greg was told, at some stage that there was something chemically wrong with his brain and that was why he was depressed, and so I think he came to rely on the idea that medication would make everything okay. When Greg's medication failed to make him feel better, I think that this made him feel even more hopeless. I think we need to do more than just give people medication to deal with such complex things. Perhaps more access to therapy alongside medication would be a good start.
The idea of encouraging people to seek help for their depression is a good idea, but for a lot of people it's financially unrealistic, isn't it? Therapy is unaffordable for a lot of people to go and speak to a professional for an hour every week that can cost $200 an hour.
That's a huge problem. I'm no expert at all, but I think depression is so complex and the reasons behind it can often be different for every person. I think speaking to a psychologist or a counsellor is helpful for people but for many people, they just can't afford it. Even medication is expensive and that's not affordable for many people.
Greg did take medication and his medication changed several months before his death. He assumed this change would make him feel better and it didn't. Can you tell me what effect that had on him?
He didn't like the idea of taking medication, but he did as he was advised. When it didn't have the effect he hoped for, I can only assume it made him feel more hopeless. I think it can be devastating if you get a new medication and you're told that this medication is better than the old one and it will make you feel much better and it actually doesn't. I think you would feel like a failure and I don't believe it's something you would talk about to anyone because you're trying everything possible to make yourself feel better and it's not having any effect. In retrospect, I can see that he was frustrated and there was a sense of desperation that he was doing everything he had been told to do and he would say that he was trying harder than ever to make himself better and yet nothing was working. I can't imagine how distressing that must have been for him.
Do you feel that there is enough support around the dispensing of medication? Would it have helped you to have known that his medication had changed?
I think it's very important to have someone you trust, both professionally and personally, to accompany you through this process. Someone who stands by your side and who can also react to any changes or especially any unexpected changes. I don't know that the side effects of taking medication are adequately explained to people and so I think that people actually aren't made aware of what they should be looking for in terms of mood changes or other side effects. The very sad thing is that when people start taking medication, or start a new medication, they think they're going to feel better and if they don't start feeling better, they feel there's something about them that is incurable.
From the outside it seemed to many people that Greg had it all. He was successful, he had a family, he seemed happy. It's actually very difficult for people to even believe that someone like Greg could be suffering from depression, isn't it? And it was also difficult for Greg himself to be able to show his vulnerability in that way?
Yes, people looking in would think what could possibly be wrong with his life, but they don't see the internal pressure. It's a sad fact that the statistics show that men in 40s and 50s, who are in successful positions and have good education are at high risk of suicide. For men like Greg, I think they feel a strong sense of having to keep being successful, to be a good provider and to not let anyone down. Greg was always the strong person who people came to and leaned on for support and yet he felt he couldn't show vulnerability and found it difficult to ask for support or even ask to lean on someone else's shoulder. That is something we should talk about more. You don't have to always be strong, that sometimes strength comes in being vulnerable. You don't have to go through this all by yourself; it's okay to need other people.
People are so busy now and so involved in their own lives and the sense of a strong community isn't always available do you think this is also something we should be looking at?
I think community is very important. In Switzerland it used to be that you'd have three generations living in a house and nowadays every family is separated and living independently from each other, I think we are much more isolated as a community and this has its drawbacks. When there is strong community, people don't feel so alone, and they also feel needed. I think this is particularly important during Covid-19 because it's adding more mental distress to people.
How important is it that we talk about depression within our own families and communities?
It's very important. Firstly, for the person with depression, it allows them to not have to deal with things on their own and also, for friends and family of that person, it allows them to better understand the illness. We need to learn more about it because we can't see it. It's not just a broken arm, it's a broken spirit and we can only learn how to help heal this through talking with others about their experiences. For the person with depression, dealing with this constant burden is very isolating and for the people who want to help, they also feel very isolated because they've been shut out. It's a very lonely game for everyone.
Removing the stigma or judgment around depression and suicide is very important. We don't judge people for going to see a physiotherapist for a sore back, but we still judge people for seeing a therapist.
Yes, it's still something we don't talk about enough. We hide it from our friends and family, we hide it in our workplaces for fear of being judged. We don't want people to think we can't cope. Everybody has something they struggle with and yet there's still a stigma attached to going to see a psychologist. We need to change this.
As someone who is dealing with the aftermath of suicide, what would you say to anyone thinking that the world would be better off without them – because unfortunately a lot of people think that way– which is obviously so wrong, but what would your advice be to someone who feels like that?
I would say that you might not be able to see it or feel it right now, but you are so loved by so many people and if you choose to go, it will be devastating for those around you. Just stay. We will find a way of getting through it, but you have to stay.
Can you tell me a little bit about what was it like for you after Greg died?
For a very long time, it was just like a nightmare. I would think that I was going to wake up and find that Greg was still lying there next to me, because it was so unbelievable and surreal. To lose someone you love so suddenly, it feels like the ground has fallen away. It feels like an earthquake, everything is shaking. All the stability is gone. At that moment, everything in my life changed. Nothing is the same. I had to begin a completely different life. There are some things that haven't changed - I am still the mother to a son - but all of a sudden, I am a single parent. Everything about my life has changed and it was a change that I wasn't prepared for. It was a change I never wanted.
Did you find that people were unsure about what to say to you after Greg died?
I had all sorts of reactions. I found that a lot of people didn't know what to say because they didn't want to say something that might hurt me and so they just didn't mention it at all. There were a couple of instances when people actually asked me how he did it, which I found incredibly insensitive. Generally, people were nice and tried to help me, and even people we didn't know, were very kind. I do understand that it is difficult to find the right words to say to someone who has just gone through such a tragedy, and sometimes there are no words needed. I had one dear friend who was absolutely amazing, she has checked in with me every single day since it happened and she always caught me when I was falling and that made all the difference. Everything changes after a suicide, even friendship. Some friendships became much deeper and you also lose some friendships along the way because not everyone can deal with it and they pull back. It can be very lonely.
Two years on, what would you like people to know about Greg that they probably don't?
He was a very sensitive and sometimes very serious person. It was sometimes hard to see behind that very clever, very funny persona. He was also a very caring person. He adored his two children. He loved his friends. Everyone thought they knew him because every night he would come into their living room on the news and he showed a certain part of his personality on screen but there was a very sensitive and loving and creative person behind that quick wit. I worried after his death that people would judge him for his actions, but I just hoped that people would not let that one act define his life. His death was such a huge loss but I know he would want something positive to come out of this and I know that if one other person can be helped through talking about this, he would want that.
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