My godfather was the funniest man in the room.
No matter the occasion, no matter the topic, he would have us in all stitches; the kind of laughter that had tears running down your face. He possessed a genuine X factor about him, a quick wit and a cheeky smile that was automatically infectious. “You’ll never guess what happened the other day…” is all he had to say and we would all begin giggling. No matter where he went he was loved, no matter what room he walked into smiles welcomed him. I always saw him as the most jolly guy ever.
Except I was wrong. Behind his bubbly exterior he was struggling with demons inside of his head, and worst of all, we didn’t know.
One day, all of a sudden out of the blue, my godfather took his own life.
Suicide is on the rise worldwide at an alarming rate. For the first time in 11 years Japan has recorded an increase in the number of suicides highlighted by a variety of high profile examples including actress Yuko Takeuchi, actor Haruma Mura, and wrestler Hana Kimura. Most glaringly there has been an alarming 15 per cent rise in female cases with last October alone seeing a colossal 70 per cent increase year on year, with 879 cases recorded.
There is a direct correlation in the marked increase in Japan with the number of people living alone. The number of marriages is on the decline, thus co-habitation is less of a regular occurrence, meaning that when the petrifyingly large burdens of the pandemic occur, such as unemployment and devastating health consequences, there is no existing support structure in place. People are literally struggling on their own.
This has become so alarming that that Japanese government recently appointed a ‘Minister of Loneliness’ to fight pandemic-driven isolation. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has launched a cabinet aimed at easing loneliness and stress among his country’s citizens, with plans to promote activities aimed at preventing social segregation.
Japan is not the only country to come up with such measures, with the UK also creating a cabinet of ministers to tackle loneliness following record numbers of people taking their own lives in England and Wales. South Korea has seen a five per cent increase yearly for a decade, and New York has seen a shocking rise in teenage suicides, mostly attributed to “isolation, boredom and the lack of social interaction” by the Child Mind Institute.
In Malaysia, half a million people were reported with mental health problems by the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey, with 500 attempted suicides. The Befrienders Kuala Lumpur patron Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said in a statement in conjunction with World Health Day 2020 that “half of all mental disorders [cases] begin by the age of 14, and three-quarters by the mid-20s”—pressing the urgency for better mental healthcare in this country. At present, Malaysia allocates RM344.82 million to mental healthcare, about one per cent of the total budget for healthcare, which stands much lower than the global average of 2.8 per cent.
Mental health concerns are more prevalent today than ever before, and the pandemic can be blamed for accentuating prior conditions. Not only do people feel alone, but also carry the shame of thinking they cannot, and perhaps should not share their problems.
When faced with loneliness, especially with the constraints of lockdown, various therapists have suggested some small ways that we can all take steps to finding a better place.
Kathleen Smith, author and licensed counsellor, often advises her clients to go back to their family and consider how their immediate and extended families are a resource to them. “When people start writing letters to a grandparent or setting up a weekly phone call with a sibling, it can have a huge impact on their overall mood,” she says.
Sherry Amatenstein, author of ‘How Does That Make You Feel’ encourages us to learn to enjoy your own company. “Some good ways to start: meditation class, take yourself to a movie, reading, watch TED Talks or other things that will make you think,” she advises. “Start a gratitude journal. Focusing on things to be grateful for rather than wishing for what you presently don’t have is a great lesson in appreciation. Also, do something freeing: dance naked, eat messy food in bed, O.D. on junk TV.”
Julie Fraga, a clinical psychologist, recommends pet therapy. “Spending time with a pet can help combat feelings of loneliness by giving us an oxytocin boost,” she says. “Volunteering at a local pet shelter may also be helpful.”
From an outsider’s perspective it is virtually impossible to offer a once size fits all piece of advice on how to alleviate someone else’s loneliness as everyone responds to issues in different ways, however it is universally easy to ask, “How are you?”
Within our community or among our nearest and dearest, it takes minimal effort to touch base. Perhaps this is all it takes to give someone the outlet they need to reach out for help, or offload the concerns that are on their mind. Eliminating judgment in a response to others’ struggles, and offering to listen are powerful tools, and the gift of time is invaluable.
As I write this article I am sitting in the isolation of quarantine, following my relocation to Singapore having spent the past year apart from my loved ones. In fact, I spent the vast majority of the last year in relative isolation, a consequence of living where I worked—up in the highlands.
It is very easy through the tracing paper of isolation to view the hints of depression that sit underneath. Isolation forces us to seek company from arguably the most difficult companion of all, our own minds. All the questions we have been avoiding, difficult memories, and indeed traumas locked away from years gone by are all too easily available, and at least in my case, a real semblance that as time rapidly passes, it is lost.
Having lived through a long-distance relationship for the past three years, made bearable by the efficiency of weekend travel, and the fact that you could book a flight at the drop of a hat, I cannot emphasise enough the value I place on companionship, and indeed human touch. When this is taken from you, and no solutions are within your immediate grasp, it is impossible to compartmentalise the disappointment, and sadness at its loss. Facetime is helpful, but there will always be a moment that the call comes to an end, and you are alone again. As confident as I have always seemed, and indeed felt, I am not secure with loneliness.
I wish I’d known more of my godfather’s troubles. Not knowing there was a problem is saddening, but not as painful as wondering if we could have helped.
With every moment I laughed at his jokes, I never anticipated that there was a deeper issue behind the smile, and I never thought to ask ….
“How are you?”
If anyone reading this is facing any issues, and would like someone to listen or talk to, please feel free to reach out anytime.