There are fewer sadder experiences as a doctor than meeting someone who has tried to take their own life. It is not a sadness for me at witnessing someone in hospital with that history but a sadness for the person who feels that their life is so hopeless that that are better off beyond it. Working in intensive care has opened my eyes to the struggles that many people feel in their lives – struggles that drive them to attempt suicide. On a weekly basis, you see, I walk into the intensive care unit in the morning (because these attempts usually occur at night – supported by alcohol) to find a new young person intubated and ventilated having taken a massive drug overdose or having tried to hang themselves.
You realise how precious life is when you see patients, critically ill from some infection, trauma or disease. But seeing someone who deliberately challenges their life is, for some reason, even harder. Perhaps it has to do with control. I say this because when you think about it, you can’t help getting sick sometimes – and as a result as a doctor we treat the cause as best we can. It is a tangible source such as a blood infection, chest pneumonia or leg fracture for example. You know the cause. You stop it.
The drive to suicide, however, is often not tangible.
That scares me as a junior doctor. How do you treat what you cannot see? How do you manage people who are so unwell that they look to suicide as a solution? I think that it is generally accepted that many doctors find these illnesses hard to deal with for this very reason. But we must. We must find a way to help them, treat them and block perhaps what is the greatest challenge of all – stopping them trying again. Having met people in the intensive care unit for whom this is their sixth attempt in the past year, you realise that this is not always possible. We cannot after-all control what choices a person makes.
We can however give them all the support, treatment, understanding, and kindness that we in modern medicine and in a modern society have to offer.