This weekend, along with many people close to me, I mourned the loss of an amazing spirit from my community. I’m not going to wax poetic about him, because it’s pointless, and a matter of perspective. But I am going to rail relentlessly against the fact that he took his own life. And I like that phrasing, because the loss of his life is a robbery of a heinous and pernicious sort.
And I don’t blame him. If anything, I applaud and support him. I hope that in the moments leading up to his death he FINALLY felt some semblance of peace and control over his life, because he never felt it when he was alive. Wherever he is, I hope he has what he needed, even if it is as simple as peace and quiet. But god, it hurts in my chest, literally burning, when I think about it.
So why do I want to rail relentlessly against the fact that he took his own life? Because for decades leading up to that moment, this man suffered, almost relentlessly, from a disease so serious that it is not only fatal, but extraordinarily painful. If you watched someone die of cancer, and it took 20 years, and they were in pain the whole time, and you felt that people were looking at it with scorn, that your friend was filled with pain and shame, and that no one took it seriously, you’d be railing too. (I hope.)
So let’s get good and clear on a few things.
Mental Illness is a massive health problem.
According to the NIMH, 26.2% of Americans will experience a mental disorder that impacts their lives in any given year.
Of those, more than 22% will be serious enough to be called “mental illness” and merit medication and / or inpatient treatment.
By comparison, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, that’s HALF as many.
Mental Illness can be fatal.
In 2007, suicide was the 10th leading cause of all deaths in the US. For every successful suicide, there were 11 attempts. In 2007, suicide was the 3rd leading cause of death of people between the ages of 15 – 24.
90% of people who commit suicide had been previously diagnosed with depression and / or addiction. (Those often go together.)
Mental Illness is physical, just like diabetes and cancer. According to the NIMH:
There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.
Brain-imaging technologies have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different from those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, important neurotransmitters–chemicals that brain cells use to communicate–appear to be out of balance.
Some types of depression tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic link. Genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of multiple genes acting together with environmental or other factors.
It’s been interesting to watch how people are reacting to his suicide. Reactions are running the gamut, which is not surprising. I understand all of them, but the place that I get stuck is the anger. People are going through what seems like a very natural stage of anger at him for doing this.
I guess I’ve been too close to suicide and mental illness, too many times. I’ve watched people I love slog through their lives in a state of constant pain and hopelessness. It is as hard to watch someone’s soul die before your eyes as it is to watch their body die before your eyes from cancer or old age – something I’ve also watched. I’ve never been angry at someone I love who slipped away from cancer or old age. I’ve been relieved that they are no longer suffering, and consoled myself with memories and lessons that I gained from them.
I feel the same way about suicide. As much as I miss my friends, I don’t blame them for ending their suffering, and I wouldn’t suggest that they should have held on longer just because I didn’t want to lose them.
Death is for the living. What will we learn from the loss of our loved ones? What will we change about our lives? How will we carry them with us and honor them? And in the case of suicide, what will we do to change the world so that others don’t have to suffer like they did?
Last year, when another friend committed suicide, I listened to people say things like, “he’s weak,” and “he’s selfish.” With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the mentally ill suffer quietly, behind dark doors held shut with layers of shame? And as long as they are hiding, afraid to talk about it, how are we supposed to develop understanding, that leads to cures – or at least to a compassionate society in which they can exist?
So ya, I’m pissed, and I’m railing. But not against the people I love who have suffered until they can suffer no longer. I’m pissed and angry at the rest of us who call them names, hide from them and don’t look for a solution.
As for those of us who are feeling the impact directly, not just in a societal sense, and wondering what we could have done, what we should have done. The answer is: nothing. We couldn’t save him. We couldn’t fix him. We couldn’t do anything other than be who we were to him, and let him do the same. At the end of the day, all that any of us can do, for anyone, is create a safe place for them to explore, discover, hurt and heal for themselves. We are not gods, not even for moments in time when we are so sure of the power of our own love.
But if we band together, and make a big giant safe place for people, then we can begin to see the problem, address the problem, and maybe even solve the problem. That’s how we honor those we love, and fill the void that their loss has left.