I’ve lived the story of suicide: our youngest adult son, Kevin, died from bipolar disorder. Living with someone with mental illness rocks the patient’s world and destabilizes the family, too: it infiltrates the family’s DNA.
When our family love-boat listed to port each time Kevin was in crisis, other family members rushed to starboard, hoping to right the ship. The Coast Guard didn’t respond to our Mayday calls: broken minds don’t register on radar even when waves of chaos crashed over the deck and the hold flooded. Frantically we bailed water but eventually the ship capsized. Kevin left behind a grieving wife, his father and me (his stepmother), and our other sons and their families.
Dead canaries served as early-warning signals that odorless but highly toxic gases were present in coal mines. The stigma of mental illness is similarly odorless, invisible, but highly toxic; and too many of our children, spouses, friends and colleagues end up wounded, succumbing to the toxins. They die by suicide – death by mental illness. Why? Because the stigma of mental illness keeps it shrouded in darkness and prevents us from seeing the reality of a broken system, invisible but deadly. Meanwhile, our loved ones’ bodies litter the landscape, unseen.
For years we faced the stigma of mental illness that keeps it cloaked in denial and how that can play out when the patient, the family and society collude to maintain the status quo. In reality, the family is left in tatters, struggling to make sense of it all. The stigma influences how we write the obituaries, using euphemisms at the urging of others: “he died unexpectedly”, “she left us all too soon”. Our beautiful, broken loved one becomes a statistic, a “suicide completer”: a number with no name, no face. We cringe when we hear the phrase, “they committed suicide”, associating it with a criminal act when in reality our loved one acted out of intense despair and desperation.
September was Suicide Prevention Month. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 3000 people on average commit suicide daily, more than one million per year. For every person who commits suicide, 20 or more others attempt to end their lives. Suicide rates are at an all time high for Veterans. Now is the time to shine a life-affirming light on suicide and the accompanying depression and other mental illnesses that fuel it.
- We can start tearing down the stigma by recognizing the ways society defines mental illness: how that plays to our fears, and humiliates and ridicules those who are dealing with brain disorders – basket case, crazy, head case, lunatic, nut case, off your rocker, psycho, whack job. The language of treatment isn’t much kinder. Common terms for psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and therapists, include: head doctor, headshrinker (“shrink” for short), quack, and charlatan. They speak in a foreign language: “psychobabble.” Words can harm – let’s change the lingo.
- Let’s encourage our legislators to fund successful evidence-based mental health programs, and subsidize research independent of pharmaceutical industry influence. Fiscal priorities at the state and federal level reinforce the low value placed on mental wellness: mental health programs and resources are often the first to be cut. Veterans programs suffer from a lack of adequate financial and human resources. Additionally, our pill-popping culture sets an unrealistic expectation: not everybody can be “fixed” with medication. The business of mental illness has many stakeholders, but market forces are turning too many psychiatrists into script-writers for Big Pharma. Numerous ads on TV, radio and social media promote this mentality. Big Insurance reinforces it by limiting appointments to 20 minutes and capping the number of talk therapy sessions. In our case, it took 15+ years to get a definitive diagnosis. Additionally, Kevin wasn’t able to tolerate the side effects of prescription psychotropic medications. He also wasn’t properly supervised while on prescription meds and, at times, went cold turkey off meds and experienced extreme complications.
- We can ensure patients, caregivers and families have community resources and support services so they are less isolated and more connected. As a mental health advocate, I have had survivors reach out and share how their religious leaders abandoned them in their time of need after losing a loved one to suicide. This type of reaction from some faith-based communities amplifies the feelings of shame that accompany the stigma. Faith can be an important source of strength but, at its worst, it can be intolerant and harmful.
- Health privacy legislation prevents families from getting needed medical treatment for adult family members. We can mitigate this by ensuring every adult, including adult children with mental illness and/or special needs, has in place a will, a durable power of attorney, and an advanced directive for healthcare decisions.
- Let’s wisely approach recreational drug legislation by assessing possible unintended consequences for minors as well as ensuring the infrastructure is in place to support and mitigate those challenges. Kevin chose, from his teen years onward, to self-medicate with pot and alcohol – a toxic brew for someone with bipolar disorder who is also in denial.
- Long overdue is a sensible approach to gun legislation that respects gun ownership as well as public safety. The finger pointing needs to stop. Gun-right advocates fear loss of freedom if we make it harder to buy guns, so we end up with all this freedom coupled with all this death. The bottom line message is: a life means nothing. May reasonable people rally together to find common ground: ensuring public safety. Seriously mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns.
These are just some of the ways we can work together to keep our communities safer and welcoming for those living with mental illness and impairment as well as those who are not; teaching our children, teens and adults of all ages about awareness, personal responsibility for our mental health and safety, safe practices and watching over each other.
Those of us who are searching for “normal” after suicide live in a bifurcated world, our loved one ever present by their absence. Our world is colored forever by an exquisite sadness, grieving and loving what we’ve lost. Like the canaries in the mines, our loved ones are dying: they are sending us an early-warning signal. It’s time we listened and took action.