I read this week that in Galway, a county on the west coast of Ireland, there were five suicides last weekend. Last year, the county had 31 deaths by suicide. This year so far it has had 22. And it’s not even June. This news left me reeling.
Curious to see how Ireland compares with Hungary, I checked the suicide rankings. (That the world collects such statistics is a clue to how messed up our society is.) Hungary is at 9 (2009 figures) – Ireland at 36 (2011 figures). This didn’t surprise me.
The caricature of the depressed Hungarian is one that runs deeps. Go back to 1933 when Rezső Seress composed Gloomy Sunday, which found world fame when it was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 and became known as the Hungarian Suicide Song. Urban legend has it that many people committed suicide while listening to it, and more still left its lyrics as their final words to the world. In 1968, 35 years after writing the song, apparently Seress himself committed suicide on his second attempt. It’s said he jumped out a window in Budapest but survived, to choke himself to death with a wire later in hospital.
Most at risk in Hungary are men in their 50s while Ireland tops the charts for teenage suicide in Europe for both boys and girls. What is wrong with the world? When does it get so bad that life is no longer worth living? That there is no hope left? That people have absolutely no one they can turn to?
In my early teens, I remember being really angry with my parents for not letting me do something or go somewhere. I went so far as to write a note and find a large bottle of aspirin. I was all set to swallow the lot but when I took out the cotton-wool filling, there were only five tables left. I didn’t want to kill myself; I wanted to punish my parents. How selfish can you get? And yet I wonder how many young people have died needlessly for the same reason – to prove a point?
There are those who think that suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness, that the victims are not the ones who have died but rather those who are left behind. But to suffer from a deep-seated depression or unhappiness that drives you to take your own life – where is the selfishness in that?
Depression is a serious issue. That feeling of apathy, of doom, of hopelessness is one that has to be experienced to be fully understood. The isolation, the futility, the frustration experienced by some who might appear to lead perfectly happy lives is difficult to empathise with unless you’ve been there.
Be it Ireland or Hungary or anywhere, it can be difficult to spot the signs, particularly as so much of our interaction is now virtual. But we can pay more attention to those who are going through radical changes like the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job or a mortgage foreclosure. We can notice when someone becomes withdrawn, or starts to bring up the subject of how to commit suicide, or speaks of wills and readying their affairs. We can listen when someone talks of feeling lonely or isolated, or expresses feelings of uselessness, failure, or loss of self-esteem. We can notice if someone seems obsessed with problems that appear to have no solutions. Above all, we can make time for people and show them that someone does care.
First published in the Budapest Times 30 May 2014