Suicidal, review: their clinical lack of self-pity made these men's stories all the more devastating

Jasper Rees
Eighteen-year-old Charlie was the youngest to take part in the documentary - Television Stills

What makes someone yearn to bring an end to their own life? The deathwish doesn’t discriminate. Charlie was bullied at school. Leo was crushingly lonely. Jack’s family had all died around him. Stewart had bottled up his depression in the masculine environment of the army.

Six people who, between them, had made 20 attempts on their own lives, bravely took us into their confidence in Suicidal (Channel 5), which was aired on Suicide Prevention Day. Among the statistics that bloomed on the screen, the most insistent was that men are far likelier to commit suicide than women. Here, they articulated their feelings of despair with a clinical clarity that felt drained of all self-pity.

Your heart went out above all to the youngest of these men. Sweet-faced Charlie, only 18, his forearms densely latticed with scars, his mind as analytical as a shrink’s, knew exactly how he’d got here. “When things happen to you when you’re younger, they stick,” he said. “That’s a big part of mental health: the small things lead up to the big things.”

Then there was Jack, 19, whose big vulnerable eyes were shaded by baseball cap bearing the legend Adults Only. He was invited to depict his mental state. “I feel defeated. I feel weak. Very, um, lost… If my life is going to be battling with this feeling all the time, I don’t want to live it.” You just wanted to hug him.

Jack Credit: Channel 5

There was only a thin membrane keeping all of these men in the here and now: the nurses and psychiatric professionals of two mental health centres on the outskirts of London. What was apparent was that it is gruelling work persuading their patients that life is worth living. The patience and dedication of each and every one was exemplary, even when there seemed to be no right or helpful thing to say. “If you took your own life,” said one, “you’d have not given us a chance. Let us try.”

How hard the job is was illustrated when Reece, who alerts the police to his suicidal urges on a regular basis, had a pep talk from his sister who explained that, in killing himself, “that doesn’t resolve anything. You’re just dead. You’re gone. That doesn’t mean life’s getting any better.”

There was no effort to politicise these stories – to theorise about the social causes or bang the drum for mental health funding. In two cases the subjects were able to confront specific causes of their despair and find a purpose. Ron, 62, suffering from suicidal despair and guilt as his partner was dying in a hospice, pulled himself together to look after her. Stewart found the courage to talk about his depression and moved back in with his family.

But it is slow thankless work for all parties, who were honoured and respected in this discreet and sensitive film by Rachel Harvie.