16th May 2022
Working on a suicide helpline has led Bill McMillan to wonder how prevalent the issue is within the stammering community. Here he explores the pressures that people who stammer can face.
I have been a long-term member of a national helpline solely for people who are thinking about suicide or are making plans to end their life.
The popular notion of people phoning such helplines when they are on the edge of a cliff or taking an overdose or finding some other way to kill themselves is not actually what happens. Most of the calls I've taken are from people who are lonely and depressed, find life difficult and harsh, or who have been made out to be 'different'. The idea of going to a party, for example, fills them with dread and even shopping disturbs them and gradually, feeling scared, they sink into themselves, and this usually destroys any self-esteem they may have had. They can find it impossible to feel part of the world. They can only look at it with envy. And that is the danger sign for suicidal thoughts to ferment.
It can be very difficult for some people who stammer to embrace life as it is because of the constant pressures...
As someone who stammers myself, it has made me wonder about the number of people who stammer who might have experienced suicidal thoughts. What I described above might be an extreme example of what some people might experience after many negative speaking situations: perhaps the feeling in the stomach when you are sent on a course and dread having to give your opinion, or worse, your name in front of a room full of strangers. Or the everyday thoughtlessness of people asking "Have you forgotten your name?" — the sort of thing usually reserved for a child. Or when at work or in the pub, when someone makes a 'joke' about stammering and there is an embarrassed hush when people look at you and then the floor after remembering you were there. Then saying "Sorry", which actually makes it worse. Or the fear of being laughed at or ridiculed in front of others, or even bullied for the way they speak.
It can be very difficult for some people who stammer to embrace life as it is because of the constant pressures described above and more.
Acceptance can be hard
We are seeing more and more how some people have embraced their stammer. Some give motivational speeches in front of large audiences. Others are proud to stammer. I wonder though if this might alienate those people who simply find it hard to accept, or hard to change a lifetime of negative thoughts about their speech. They might not be helped by it; to some, acceptance and pride might seem an impossible dream. And more likely feel it would be easier to fly to the moon. Not for a second am I decrying these people who have the confidence and drive to do this; it's just that a lot of people don't. Is there a chance they will just feel further cast to the outer edges of society? Perhaps even into the potential suicide zone?
I also wonder how many people who are experiencing extreme depression or suicidal thoughts because of their stammer would actually call a telephone helpline.
This is something I have thought about for years being a person who stammers. Of course, not everyone who stammers is depressed or suicidal, but I am thinking and writing only about those who are or might be.
Alternatives to the phone
I also wonder how many people who are experiencing extreme depression or suicidal thoughts because of their stammer would actually call a telephone helpline. Using the phone can be a source of dread for many who stammer; so how many people are falling through the net because talking to somebody on the telephone is too scary a prospect?
I know STAMMA introduced a webchat service in 2020 — this is an alternative way of getting help if you stammer, and I'd urge anyone to use it if they feel they need to talk. Samaritans also have an email service, as do STAMMA, if using the phone is too difficult.
I'd like to end by encouraging anyone out there who is feeling down or suicidal, whether it's about stammering or something else, to reach out. Talk to someone — whether that be over the phone, in person or over webchat — about how you feel.
If you have been affected by the things Bill writes about and would like to speak to someone, our support service is here for you. Our helpline and webchat are run by people who either stammer themselves, or have a close connection to it, so it's a safe space to talk. It's free, confidential and anonymous and it's open weekdays 10am to 12noon and 6pm to 8pm. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Read more Your Voice articles:
Living & dying with a stammer (Naheem's story)
Say no to fluentism (Tim's opinion piece)
Why we feel uncomfortable when we stammer (Bhupinder's vlog)