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Bringing Suicide to the Dinner Table

May 28, 2015

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.

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5 comments

  1. Dear Carrie–

    As your cousin, and as someone who once attempted suicide, it seems clear your post makes reference to me in its first paragraph. Although I am sorry to have added to your burden of exposure to such a frightening and tragic fact of modern life, I am happy to know that you care enough to feel affected by my story. One of the lies depression tells the sufferer is that he or she is not loved. It is nice to be reminded that I am.

    I no longer suffer much from my former mental health issues. I have occasional dark periods that can be quite intense, but they are rare enough and brief enough that they don’t have much lingering effect me or those around me. Although there are many things I could say here in response to your beautiful essay, I want to concentrate on what it took for me to overcome my psychiatric conditions. We all wish that everyone who suffers with such problems could transcend them. How can it be done?

    In my opinion, true healing demands spiritual growth. Such maturation derives from two key practices: meditation and devotion. Both are very helpful to those with psychiatric problems, but many people can improve a great deal by pursuing just one or the other.

    Beginning meditation instruction (these days, most commonly focusing on mindfulness) often calms the psyche rather quickly. As one meditates over time, the practice fosters acceptance, so that outer life circumstances and inner mental states no longer cause such painful resistance and suffering (there may be brief episodes during this stage when psychic pain actually intensifies, due to more capacity to allow emergence of deeply buried conflicts). As meditative skills deepen, one feels begins to feel profoundly connected with other people, and indeed all living beings. Calm, acceptance, and feelings of connectedness all go a long way toward healing depression and other psychiatric afflictions. There are now mindfulness-based mental health interventions, such as DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) that can help those suffering from psychiatric disorders learn mindfulness techniques in safe, measured ways.

    Devotional practice, by which I mean the best of the theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, help in a different way. They encourage the sufferer to locate that energy within the heart that feels mysterious, eternal, and loving. They remind us that the entire world operates with this deep, creative principle at its core. Whether we call this quality God, Christ, Allah, Brahman, or (as I prefer) Life, is immaterial. What matters is recognizing that love does not depend on other people; it is available to anyone who opens to it. And what does such opening require? A calm, accepting, and connected spirit. In other words, devotional awareness is facilitated by the fruits of meditation, which is why all religions include elements of peaceful, contemplative practice.

    Listing the benefits that accrue, it seems obvious that meditation and devotion can serve as powerful antidotes to depression, anxiety, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, addictions, and so on. Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out some eighty years ago, with its emphasis on prayer and meditation (stated explicitly in the so-called Eleventh Step). I believe much faith-healing throughout the ages has been based on much the same principle.

    The point is, many problems of mental health can be looked at as problems of spiritual health (a few may be primarily due to brain chemistry, but even here meditation and devotion may help). It is this insight, which seems ever more obvious to me as my own wellbeing improves, that recently prompted me to apply to a training program for Spiritual Directors. I briefly considered psychotherapy programs, but I soon realized it makes more sense to work at the problem’s source rather than its downstream effects.

    Which begs the question: Why are so many people so spiritually ill? I’m sure we all can imagine some possibilities: ecological deterioration, never-ending wars and violence, diminishing opportunities, intense competition, rampant consumerism, endemic injustice, disconnected communities, etc.

    These stressors are hard on everyone, but they hit those who have been traumatized or raised without love even harder. Which explains why the frequency of psychiatric disorders shows such strong statistical association with childhood adversity. But sensitive people, even if raised with love, may still suffer in the face of the modern world’s madness.

    In fact, it is a wonder that *all* people aren’t mentally ill. Or maybe the term has been too narrowly defined. The documentary “I Am” makes the point that in indigenous cultures selfishness is considered a kind of mental disorder. If we added tendencies like excessive greed and lack of regard for others to the list of psychiatric afflictions, we’d probably find that psychological morbidity affects a majority of the population.

    And I suppose–in considering the remainder of the population that seems to be doing pretty well–we could take Krishnamurti’s saying to heart in this regard: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Perhaps those who feel no ill effects are just not paying close attention.

    Well, we can’t fix our culture so easily as we can strengthen our minds and deepen our love. Not that meditative and devotional practices don’t take a lot of work, but they do yield fairly rapid results when pursued with vigor. My own healing is testimony to that.

    I know you understand the power of spiritual growth. I just want to emphasize that as we seek solutions to this epidemic of depression, suicide, and other psychiatric afflictions, it is important to identify the directions most likely to lead to healing.

    Psychotherapy, support for those who’ve been traumatized (especially children), and judicious use of medications are all important. So too is spiritual practice. And so is working to address our civilization’s ills.

    Above all, it is absolutely essential that we start to open up about this subject, as you have done so beautifully. Without honest, nonjudgmental conversation, too many people will suffer in isolation, and too many of those will take their own lives.

    Thank you so much for your courage in writing such a fine, sensitive piece.

    With Love and Admiration,

    –Will


    • Thanks, Will. This is an amazing response.


  2. […] a slightly modified version of it here. I encourage readers to visit my cousin’s site (Rock, Paper, Write) to read the piece that led me to write what I’ve published […]


  3. We have effectively created a monster out of the society. Everything is electronic including friendship. Nothing is real. Life is devoid of warmth and touch,, the kind that truly feeds the soul.
    While we work so hard for freedom and independence our mental health is sustained by healthy co-dependance .
    A human being is a spirit not the mass of flesh that is so obvious to the eye.
    That’s why rape still hurts 20 years after it happened and divorce is not as simple as walking out of a marriage.
    We work so hard to run away from connections and responsibilities of a Soulish nature, yet the resultant products is a person we can’t recognised.
    Spirituality is a good idea whatever that means to you but together with it I suggest we go back to real living
    ……..
    Am not a writer or anyone significant but I have lost relatives to suicide and I live among a people with suicidal tendencies. Depressive and maybe even on treatment.
    I found an understanding of my temperament and personality a great help in dealing with my own temptation to nurse a death wish .
    I picked up a copy of the bible and meditated on what it says about me and my future to counter the lies in my head that were sending me into depression.
    Am not completely free but thank God I now know the signs and have developed healthy response mechanisms that keep me sober and connected to the world around me.


  4. Thank you, Carrie, for speaking out. It’s always like that when change needs to come. That little girl says, “The King’s naked!!” Our society is very sick. We are distracted by and addicted to nonsense, the shimmering chimera. It has become so “normal” to see families eating out together-separately, each on a device, faces down; to see babies being babysat by electronics instead of a another human face; to see workers struggling at two or three jobs to make ends meet, while billionaires moan about protests. There are many ways to Inquire Within. Paradoxically, reaching out and talking to others is one of them. I love you and your cousin for embracing this complex and devastating issue. Blessings.



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