A couple months ago, a neighbor approached me as I was sitting on my porch and we got to chatting as we normally do. We exchanged niceties and banter about things going on in town. After a few minutes, she casually shared that she is on her way to Des Moines for some sort of specialized treatment for crippling depression.
I did my best to validate her feelings and praise her for getting help. What I didn’t do was share with her that I, too, have wanted to die.
Yes. Even the seemingly always optimistic Sarah Scull has thought about suicide.
Why? I couldn’t really tell you. I just know dibilitating depression can exist in spite of having supportive family and friends and living a privileged life.
But, I can tell you what has kept me alive – I lost someone I love to suicide.
You see, it’s been 25 years since my best friend ended her life. I have spent more than two decades trying to rationalize why she did this. I often find myself thinking of what she could be doing now and then circle back to the Why would she do that? How could we have stopped it? What were the warning signs?
Janine’s death and the heartbreak it caused is something I often reflect on. Witnessing her parents’ pain is what reminded me that I still owed it to my father to walk his only daughter down the aisle and my mother the opportunity to hold my hand as I deliver her first grandchild.
Attempting to rationalize Janine’s death is pointless and only causes me pain. However, as I follow the candidates on the campaign trail leading to November’s election – and listen to them discuss the need for funding for mental health services in Iowa – I realize that Janine wasn’t a victim of suicide. She was a victim of a mind that turned against her and a society not equipped to help her.
Janine wasn’t the only one. She just happened to be the closest. But, how many people do we have to lose to suicide before the collective we makes helping those a priorty?
Suicide Prevention Awareness Month
I guess the reason I write this is because I want you to know something. I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted the suffering to stop. And, this is the case with most people who have thoughts of or attempt suicide.
Yes, it’s often easier to avoid the reality that someone we care about might be struggling. If we’re not avoiding them, we tend to offer what we think might be encouraging words:
I know how you feel.
It could be worse.
Look how lucky you are!
It’s not that bad.
Just be happy.
It will get better.
The issue with these narratives are – no, you don’t know how this person feels. If someone is considering taking their own life, it can’t be worse. They can’t see how lucky they are and it really is that bad. However, it can get better. With help.
Are you a helper?
Great. Here’s how I propose we become part of the solution.
First, let’s stop referring to mentally ill people as “crazy.” Mental illness is not a choice. It’s a disease like cancer, diabetes, alzheimers and heart disease.
More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death – depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and others; however, untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide.
Speaking of depression, educate yourself – depression does not always look like sad expressions and tears. It often hides behind a smile.
Some people are genetically predisposed to depression; for others it’s triggered by several negative life experiences. In any case, each person’s experience is different and not everyone who suffers from depression exhibits symptoms or signs.
We can never assume the severity of someone’s depression. What might seem mildly upsetting to one could feel like the weight of the world to another.
Some of the signs of depression, if present, can be contradictory.
For some, depression can manifest in the form of a filthy house or not being able to show up to work, or over cleaning and over working in an effort to avoid the issue. For others it can show itself in the form of sleeping or eating too much, or too little, the inability to concentrate, having feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness, crying frequently, withdrawing from social interaction, neglecting personal appearance or the increased or frequent abuse of alcohol or drugs.
Mental Health First Aid
Three years ago I took a Mental Health First Aid course at Southwestern Community College – one of the best trainings I have been to in my professional (and personal) life. Present were educators, health care providers, parents and community members. All who attended shared stories of how they were touched personally and professionally by people who have mental health disorders, some of which have attempted suicide or died by it.
As I participated in the eight-hour course, which gave an overview of mental illness and substance abuse disorders, I wondered, why are we not teaching this in our school systems? Why do we wait until adulthood to train (too few) people on how to recognize, reach out to and provide initial help and support to people in crisis. Depression and mental health disorders are not just adult problems.
I propose the same training be offered in our school systems, places of work and worship. Not only will it save a life, but maybe it would teach a bit of compassion?
As you become inundated with suicide prevention and awareness material all month, take the time to learn. Take the time to have conversations with the people you care about. Take the time to vote for someone who values mental health care this Nov. 6.
But, whatever you do, please don’t dismiss depression or talks of suicide as someone “just wanting attention.” I hope you never have to learn the value of living by losing someone you love.
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If you are experiencing chronic sadness, please seek the help of a doctor or counselor. If you are feeling suicidal, dial 911. Additional resources are available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or www.sprc.org/states/iowa.