Questions of Compassion

This morning we woke to the sad news that a British Nurse inadvertently involved in an Australian radio station prank has, apparently, taken her life. Suicide has loomed large in my work over the years. I have lost colleagues and clients to suicide, and have had the privilege of being on-hand for those who have attempted to take their life but survived; they have been some of the most important, profound hours of my working life. I’ve also had the poignant privilege of being on hand to support those who are mourning the person that has taken their own life – sometimes this has been in the immediate aftermath, more often in the weeks, months and years that follow. The death of a loved one is always sad, but sadder still when those left can make no sense of the why questions:

  • why didn’t s/he ask me for help?
  • why didn’t I notice something?
  • why did s/he do this?
  • why can’t I stop crying?

Perhaps the outpouring of anger on social media over the last few hours has been another expression of the why questions. Although the tweets and facebook posts have used different, more emotive, words the underlying messages seem to be something along the lines of these why questions:

  • why would this happen?
  • why can’t we stop it from happening?
  • why is suicide so frighteningly inexplicable?
  • why can’t we blame something/somebody?

These why questions will mostly go unanswered, of course. The only one we can reasonably hope to address is the last one: why can’t we blame something/somebody? The answer is that suicide is a complex matter; it is not likely to be caused by a single event or single interaction. Thoughts of self harm are most likely to occur when significant, long-term stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health problems are present.

Which brings me to the three points of this post:

One. Jacintha’s death is a poignant reminder that in times of distress there are always people we can reach-out to:

Aussies via Lifeline ph 13 11 14 or

Brits via Samaritans ph 08457 90 90 90 or

For people in other countries, the world’s most popular search engine (Google) displays a picture of a red telephone and the helpline phone number if searching for a suicide-related topic.

Two. A few days ago in the UK, the Director of Nursing at the Department of Health and Chief Nursing Officer for England released a three year vision and strategy for nursing, midwifery and care staff called Compassion in Practice. In this document compassion is defined as how care is given through relationships based on empathy, respect and dignity – it can also be described as intelligent kindness, and is central to how people perceive their care (page 13).

In this sad time while we include Jacintha’s family, friends and workmates in our compassionate thoughts, let’s also share and encourage compassion for the radio DJs and their family, friends and workmates.

Suicide is too complex for blame. Nurses are too compassionate to blame.

Three. Only one Australian state (Victoria) has access to the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program – an independent support service specifically for nurses and midwives experiencing a mental health issue or substance use issue.

Shouldn’t this scheme be opened-up to all Australian Nurses and Midwives? Let’s nurture those who nurture.

In Closing

In the late 1990s I partnered with a Mindframe representative to speak with Cairns journalists about safe, sensitive reporting of mental health issues and suicide. While having no pretence of having a journalist’s qualifications or expertise, there’s no reason why those of us who blog shouldn’t be informed by the Mindframe guidelines to assist us to frame our posts in a sensitive, helpful way. Part of doing so is to acknowledge that talking and thinking about suicide can be distressing, and to ensure that readers are aware of supports:

In Australia

Lifeline – 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
For young people 5-25 years: Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
For men: MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78

In the United Kingdom

Samaritans ph 08457 90 90 90 or

For people in other countries, the world’s most popular search engine (Google) displays a picture of a red telephone and the helpline phone number if searching for a suicide-related topic.

Paul McNamara, 8th December 2012

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5 thoughts on “Questions of Compassion

  1. Pingback: A stunt turns to tragedy | Nurse Uncut Australia

  2. Carol

    So correct.
    It is a tragedy that this woman felt she had no other options than to take her own life, but it is also a tragedy that the DJ’s find themselves caught up in this. It is a situation that will have far reaching implications for all concerned, and a reminder that our actions can have wholly unintended outcomes. We need to be kind to ourselves and others, be compassionate and mindful in our interactions, and respectful of the emotional needs of others.
    Thanks for the post


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