At the age of 32, Susan had everything going for her.
Growing up in a major regional hub in country Victoria, her life had been blessed. The town in which she lived was big enough to have all the services she wanted – cinemas, gyms, and a wide variety of cafes and restaurants – without the claustrophobic feel of a city.
When she graduated from school she entered the beauty profession and very quickly realised that she had found her calling in life. She enjoyed the interaction with her clients and loved the feeling of seeing them depart with a smile on their faces. It was a job that brought her a great deal of satisfaction, and she looked forward to each new day.
After several years, however, she decided that she wanted to branch out on her own. She wanted to be her own boss, and bring her own approach to the clientele that by now she had come to know so well. And so, a couple of years ago, with the encouragement of her family, she took out a business loan and set up her own salon.
Running her own business suited her, and it was doing well. A prime location in a major shopping hub ensured a steady stream of people through the door, and she enjoyed getting to know them and becoming a part of their lives. She and her husband were looking forward to the future, and were planning to start a family soon.
But then, word started spreading of a deadly virus that was killing people in their thousands in Italy and China. The first sign she saw of it herself was when the Chinese restaurant next to her experienced a downturn. Then her business started dropping off, mostly the older clients at first. And then, a couple of weeks later, the axe descended. Restaurants and cafes were closed, and she saw a wave of fear and panic descend on the region. The carpark was deserted when she came to work in the morning, and her clients dropped away to a trickle.
She hoped that the panic would quickly pass, and her normal life could resume. She watched the daily reports and saw the infections essentially drop away to nothing, but there was no date given for the easing of the lockdowns. All she heard was a statement from the government that they would “consider easing some of the restrictions in a month or so.”
She very quickly concluded that she was a victim of politics. Those that were making the decisions, while still drawing a full salary themselves, had not the slightest understanding of the damage that their actions were inflicting on people like her. They even had the gall to describe their actions as “cautious.” What exactly was cautious about having her business thrown on the scrapheap overnight?
She began waking at 4.00 am each morning in a cold sweat, her mind consumed with panic. She could see no light at the end of the tunnel, and like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, saw herself trapped in an endless winter of the soul, one from which she could never be freed. Every plan she had ever had for the future came crashing down around her feet. She saw no hope, no future, no way to meet her mounting debts, and no way to escape from the circumstances in which she found herself.
And so, last week, she took the only way out, and took her own life.
This story is not made up. Susan is a real person, although her name has been changed to protect her family’s privacy. She leaves behind a devastated husband, brother, and parents. Suicide is the most tragic way to lose a loved one because those close to her will inevitably feel that they could have done something. That’s how guilt works – it is at times the most irrational and pointless of emotions. But that doesn’t make it any less real, nor the consequences that inevitably result.
I know this from experience. I have a profoundly brain-damaged daughter as the result of a medical procedure gone wrong. The guilt caused by the notion that I should have protected her from the doctors is at the same time irrational, pointless, and debilitating. I sought professional help for it for years, but even now I walk with a limp, and the effect on my career was irreversible.
And so it is with Susan’s loved ones. Their lives, their relationships, and their careers will be forever altered by what happened to her. They will carry it to their graves. On the day that Susan’s problems ended, theirs began.
This is the cost that the government is simply not factoring into its Covid-19 responses. The daily updates do not contain statistics on suicides or ruined lives. On available data, it is fair to estimate that there are an extra four people like Susan in Australia each day, mostly people in the prime of their life. To a close approximation, this means that these deaths are now about the same as those from the virus. But the difference is that the deaths from the virus are now tailing off, whereas those from suicides are doing the very opposite.
Let’s now compare these two cohorts of people. On the one hand, we have people in the twilight of their lives. When they pass, as well as the normal feelings of loss and grief, we hear phrases like “she had a good life” and the eulogy contains fond stories of their relationships and achievements, which their loved ones will treasure.
On the other hand, we have Susan, someone cut down in the bright flower of her youth. Someone that had her whole life ahead of her; a life that will now never be lived. The funeral will be inconsolably, irretrievably tragic. The knowledge of the unnecessary nature of her death, and the awareness of unfulfilled dreams – the children they will never see – will ensure that the grief will be unalloyed, implacable, and utterly devastating.
Fans of Babylon 5 will remember the immortal quote from G’Kar: “Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams.” Only those that have experienced this will truly understand its profound truth.
But more than the hard numbers about those that have taken their own lives will be the unquantifiable suffering of those that are left behind. I can only guess as to the long-term effects that such emotional torment will have on our society – drug use, crime, broken relationships and yes, more suicides.
There are many Susans amongst us, and the government holds their lives, and those of their families and loved ones, in its hands.
Dr Mark Imisides is a scientist and OH&S advisor. He Tweets at @DrMarkImisides.
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