After my oldest daughter’s classmate committed suicide 4 days before graduation, and my youngest daughter’s friend’s dad killed himself only one month prior; I wrote this essay for my local paper, but a number of people have encouraged me to post it here.
I’ve thought about suicide. A lot.
Not only have I had dark moments in my life; the times that I believed there was no point in living, I’ve also had an aunt take her life, a cousin attempt to take his life, and many Summit County community members die from suicide. In fact, I’ve known more people who have lost their lives to suicide than any other kind of death, including heart disease and cancer. That. Is. Not. Okay.
I’m not a mental health professional, nor am I a counselor or an expert on suicide. But here’s my story. Here are my questions and my thoughts, and as frightening as it is to write a public article in a very small town, I believe that until we all start telling our stories, speaking our truth and creating a dialogue about death and mental health, we will be attending more memorials of friends and family who’ve died from suicide.
Like so many teens, I began to wonder about life and what it all meant my junior year in high school. I grew up in a typical Midwestern, middle-class family with four siblings and loving parents. We went to church. We went to college. We ate hotdogs and ice cream on the 4th of July. I was voted friendliest in my senior class. Nothing was horribly wrong in my life—far from it—I looked like a normal, happy teenager and most of the time I was. Until I wasn’t. I wish I could make it easy and point to a specific time or event that made me question the purpose of life, but I cannot.
Looking back, I believe that it was a combination of factors; some genetic, some inherent, and some learned that led to my insecurities about mortality. The first person who helped me understand that I was not to blame for feeling anything but happy was a friend. It was four more years until I sought professional help. And then I quit. I didn’t want people to know, and I didn’t want people to talk; too much shame was involved. Instead, I acquired a few bad habits, indicative of many who struggle with mental health issues, and I carried on. It was another twenty years before I returned to counseling; hoping to help my kids, my family, and myself. I believe that I did, but my point is this: mental illness has no typical face, and depression does not always look morose.
This I do know. When someone is in a dark place, they cannot see their way out. But sometimes, one person, one conversation can make a difference. It’s time to have that conversation in all communities.
Admitting that I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and issues that are held under the umbrella of mental illness is not easy. When people think of mental illness, they conjure up thoughts from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or crazies and loonies on the street. In reality, mental illness affects one in four adults (even higher for kids) and many brilliant leaders, artists, and well-known personalities have suffered (Robin Williams, Abraham Lincoln, Kurt Cobain, Patty Duke, Virginia Woolf, Jimmy Hendrix, and Winston Churchill; to name only a few). Mental illness covers a staggering number of issues; including eating disorders, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, mood disorders, OCD behaviors, PTSD, panic attacks, and more. Any of these issues can become overwhelming. And all of them can lead to death.
Last October, U.S. NEWS &WORLD REPORT reported that suicide hit its highest level in 25 years. Today in Colorado, teen suicide ranks 9th in the nation. Although mental health is not well funded, there are support groups and organizations that can provide valuable information. The Kim Foundation helps families struggling with mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has an active Colorado chapter, and the Mayo Clinic, along with other on-line sites; offer signs and symptoms about mental illness. If you want to read—I can offer a list of books. Local schools and health providers will offer help and more resources. The key is to use them.
In my experience, most people don’t like to use the word suicide or talk about death within local communities. People seem to understand or acknowledge suicide when they hear about someone who’s been bullied, someone who is confused with their sexual orientation, and someone who’s been violated. But there are others. Suicide is uncomfortable and disturbing, but talk we must. How does it happen? What can we do to stop it? Why can’t someone see hope, have faith that life will get better? At the point when someone decides to leave the planet, there is very little that any of us can do to stop her/him, but there are steps to intervene before that final point arrives.
By starting more conversations and sharing information, we might come to a better understanding of mental illness and suicide. We might come to know the pressures that are holding down our society and begin to say no to them. We might come to realize the importance of time, attention, meditation, nature, faith, love, and clarity. We have a society that hands out prescriptions, cough medicines, and anti-acids to ease physical illness. We need to find the tools to ease mental illness as a necessary health practice.
Lives are at stake—please put aside the gossip and the religion and the cultural barriers and the preconceived notions about suicide and please talk the issues surrounding mental illness, both mild and severe. Talk to your kids, your parents, your siblings, your neighbors, your teachers, and your friends—or if it’s you who’s in pain, choose someone you trust and talk. One conversation can make a difference. We walk and we run and we snowshoe and we fundraise for physical disease. We are long overdue to do the same for our mental health. Our community needs help.
It’s time to stop the shame surrounding mental illness and bring it to the dinner table.