**I realize this is a very tough subject to talk about, and I do speak very candidly in this article about some very painful, but very important things. If you in any way feel triggered by these topics, then please do not read this at this time.**
I didn’t plan to be writing about death and suicide this week. I wanted to be writing about happier things, like back-to-school or fulfilling your life’s purpose (like we’re doing in my Personal Growth Group). But I’m compelled to write on this topic today, because, once again, suicide has reared its ugly head in my life, by taking the lives of two more of those whom I loved.
A couple weeks ago, my husband’s cousin lost his life after over four decades of struggling with self-esteem, mental illness, and just plain old life. And just two days ago, a dear friend who had suffered so much and overcome so much, finally lost her battle with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
This friend suffered from postpartum psychosis years ago, which resulted in her committing infanticide, killing her own daughter. She served several years in prison for this–a tragedy in itself–and even knew my friend, Hope, who is serving 40 years for child abuse as a result of postpartum psychosis (read about Hope!). She was finally out, had recently married, and was putting her life back together. We met just last month for lunch here in Flagstaff, because she wanted to talk with me and with my dear friend, Carole, about how she could get involved with the postpartum work we’ve been doing for years here in Arizona. She had started The Phoenix Postpartum Wellness Coalition, to advocate and support other moms struggling with postpartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis. She was even advocating for Hope, to get her out of prison, and had been featured in a new documentary on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (yet to be released).
I’ve been surrounded by death my whole life, but lately, it’s been suicide. As many of you know, last year, my close friend, Jody, took her life after silently struggling with depression and anxiety. A week after Jody died, a young man at our kid’s school took his life by jumping in front of a train. Later that week, I received word that a young client of mine who also attended our kids’ school had been planning to hang herself. She’d been “inspired” by Jody and the other young man. Her mother had luckily found her suicide notes just in time to get her admitted to the hospital. And of course, almost 8 years ago, my dearest sister, Shannon, accidentally overdosed while drunk one night, after struggling on and off with depression and alcoholism for years. (Read about my experience in This is How We Grow.)
I’m raising children who have lost a parent to mental illness and addiction. I’m a second mom to 3 more children who’s mother is no longer here because she couldn’t feel how loved she was and she couldn’t accept all the help that was surrounding her; the depression was too dark. And now, I’m once again grieving the loss of two more dear lives, all because of mental illness, stigma, and that dark call of suicide.
How can we help those who are suffering find hope in their darkest times, and how can we find hope in these dark times after such loss?
It’s hard to know when someone is suffering so sorely, to know that they’re considering taking their life. It’s hard to tell which of those who feel like dying (which is quite common) will actually plan and complete that death.
Even when we know someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts or intentions, it’s hard to know
what they’re really thinking. When Jody asked me to watch her daughter the next day for her, I knew she’d been struggling with suicidal thoughts. I thought, “What if she’s trying to be alone so she can do something to herself?” I replied to her text, “Sure I’ll watch her. But I’m worried about you, my friend. How are you doing?” She replied, “Doing great! Don’t worry about me! xoxoxo.” I believed her when she said she would use that time to go for a jog, to take care of herself. Instead, she took her life.
It’s hard to talk about this; we’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re not supposed to say on Facebook, “My friend died today after leaving her daughter at my house, sending her husband and older boys to school and work, and then grabbing a coffee before driving to the Grand Canyon and jumping off.” No. We can’t say that. So, instead, the posts say, “It is with great sorrow that I inform you that so and so died last night.” No explanation of how they died. No “died of cancer” or “died in a terrible car accident.” None of that. The silence lets us know what really happened.
But the silence is also what leads to suicide. The stigma surrounding mental illness, addiction, and thoughts of wanting to die, is so huge, it keeps people who most need to scream, silent. Why can’t they just scream? Why can’t they just scream, “I’m suffering! I need help! I am NOT okay!”? One word: stigma.
Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness & Suicide
Stigma gags us. It puts a dirty hand over our mouth, or shoves a dirty rag inside, and stops us from speaking up when we need it most. It tells us, “You can’t admit you’re struggling. That’s weak. That’s embarrassing. No one will like you. You’ll be rejected, humiliated, or worse, feared.”
Stigma IS fear. It is fear of not being good enough, fear of not being “normal.” It is others’ fear of the mentally ill, fear of seeing themselves in the mental illness, fear of becoming “like them,” one day, too.
The truth is that, deep down, we are all the same, mental illness or not. We all struggle in some way or another–it’s no secret! We are all ill, in some way, at some time in our life. Physical illness isn’t you. Mental illness isn’t you, either, and it’s not weakness. It’s like diabetes, migraines, cancer–it’s an illness that can come and cause trouble or stress, an illness that needs attention, treatment, and care to overcome. It’s an illness, like physical illness (and maybe even moreso), that needs love to overcome.
What can we do? Understand. Talk. Love.
Before we can stop the stigma, before we can begin to heal from mental illness and the pain of loss when those we love can hold on no longer, we must first understand, talk, and love. It is our only hope.
Understand. Understand that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. Understand that, even so, it is very hard to admit and seek help for mental illness. Seek to understand those in your life who struggle. Listen. Hear.
Understand that it’s “normal” to feel like you don’t want to be alive when you’re suffering from mental, or physical, illness, pain, or heartache. It’s NOT, however, normal to start planning to die or to act on that feeling. If this is happening, you need immediate help. Seek that help. Reach out. Help others get the help they need.
Understand that suicide often follows after the darkest days have passed, when the person is starting to feel a little bit better. Watch more closely, talk more openly during this time.
Also, understand that, often, those who are set on a plan for suicide often seem better, happier, more relaxed. They know what they’re going to do, and it feels like the right thing in that state of mind. Be there. Look at them. Look deeply and seek to understand.
Talk. Talk about mental illness. Talk about how you feel, ask others how they’re really doing, and then, listen. Connect. Be there for one another and let them know it’s okay to struggle. We all do.
Talk about receiving help and help them reach out and find the help they need. Talk to them face-to-face if you have any doubt or worries. Stay with them if you’re uncertain. Oh, how I wish I’d run out to the car that night when Jody dropped her daughter off, to SEE if she was really okay or not. I know it’s not my fault that she died, but oh how I wish I would have taken that extra step. Who knows what it could have done.
Love. Last week, my dear cousin, Eddie, and his beautiful wife, Mary, lost their sweet angel daughter when my cousin accidentally backed over her in a parking lot. She was three years old. It has devastated our entire family and the community where they live–another reason death has been on my mind. Yet, the outpouring of love for them and their other two children has been incredible. You see, not only has this tragedy occurred, but Eddie has been battling brain cancer for three years, and beating the odds. Now, this. It’s too much for any family to take. And yet, they move on in faith and love, and they reach out for help and for donations to cover the funeral and thousands of dollars of medical bills, and they accept that help. And they will carry on; I know they will. (More on dealing with grief, grief and the family, and grief & children, here.) (To donate to Eddie’s family, click here.)
Why can’t we have this kind of support for all kinds of people who are suffering? For those who tragically lose a child, for those who suffer from depression, for those who are battling terrible physical illnesses, and for those who struggle to find enough value in this life to keep themselves alive. Why can’t we talk about this? Why can’t we seek to understand, to be there, to tell stigma to take a hike because we won’t allow mental illness to sit in silence any longer. Why can’t we choose to love greatly?
That is my hope, that we will begin to love greatly today. Begin to reach out, to smile, to ask, to talk, to listen. Begin to hug, to understand–to cry together, to FEEL together. Begin to expose mental illness and discuss it and seek help and let help in.
Together, we can stop the stigma that strangles us. Together, we can save lives.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please call one of the following numbers:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
Postpartum Support International Support Line: 800-944-4773
Please share your experiences of mental illness, stigma, loss, and/or suicide/death with us, below, by leaving a comment. We want to hear fro you. We are here for you. xoxo
Be sure to tune in to next Monday’s episode of my New show, “Motherhood,” on WebTalkRadio.net! Talking about “the Dark Side of Motherhood” and how to prevent tragedy together.
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