I don’t want to write this post. I don’t want to think about Suicide Prevention Day (which is Saturday) or Week (which is this week) or Month (which is September). At all.
We are as sick as our secrets, though. And my resistance really is a secret. A secret that you might think certain things if I share certain things. Or a fear that if we talk about it, it will become too real. All of that.
Because I am a public person and I seek to protect those closest to me, I won’t be specific. I don’t need to be. Because you don’t need names and details. All you need to know is that, like many of you, I have had people whom I loved very much take their own lives. There are many ways people in despair kill themselves. I have learned about them in the most horrendous of circumstances.
The people I loved who committed suicide had nicknames and favorite foods. They had things that made them laugh and things they believed in. They had things that were distinctive about them: beauty marks and funny voices they used to make people smile, and ways they liked to be held when they were children being tucked into beds. They had children whose world revolved around them and they had things in life they still could have accomplished but now can not. Because they are never going to be here again. They are gone.
Suicide is an act of desperation and it is something people do when they don’t think there is anything else to do to help their situation; when they believe there is no help to get, no one who understands, no way to go on living. And so they find a way to stop living. It is an incredibly painful thing to lose someone to suicide; there are so many unanswered questions, so much anguish, so many doubts about what we did or didn’t do; it is unfathomable sometimes to try and wrap my had around this kind of loss.
I am writing this post for three reasons.
The first reason is to emphasize that as a neuroscientist and as someone who has a history of mental illness in my family and as someone who knows people who struggle with suicidal thoughts and who I have concern for, it is critical that we all understand that people who express suicidal thoughts, or those who attempt to take their own lives, are in need of professional help and support from medical specialists and their circle of friends and family. They are not “wacko,” they are not in need of someone setting them straight, they aren’t people who like to wallow in self-pity, and they are not weak. People who attempt to take their lives are suffering from a clinical condition. Clinical depression can lead to suicide, and those who consider or attempt suicide may also be suffering from psychosis and a host of other mental illnesses. They need help. Telling anyone to “snap out of it” is not an effective method of helping someone who is depressed or thinking about suicide. Learn about depression and suicide, and cultivate a perspective of understanding in your daily life about people who commit suicide. (Visit this link on NAMI’s website to get started.)
The second reason I am writing this is to plead with people who may be having suicidal ideation to get help immediately. Suicidal ideation is defined as having suicidal thoughts or preoccupation with thoughts about suicide. This can include planning it, acting out suicide scenarios, or even just extensively thinking about suicide. (Thinking about the mechanics of death or contemplating mortality in a philosophical way should not be confused with suicidal ideation.) You need help if you are having thoughts about suicide or about thinking maybe you shouldn’t live anymore. Thinking people wouldn’t miss you or that the world would be better off without you in it are warning signs, too. Get help please. There is free help and there are free anonymous hotlines you can call. Here are a few resources. Don’t hesitate. There is help for you.
The third reason I am writing this post is to emphasize how badly our medical healthcare system is broken in the realm of mental health. We have evolved as a society where essentially only the rich can afford mental health care in the form of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or even supportive or alternative measures for mental health such as massage, acupuncture and hypnosis. This should be making all of us very mad. We should be protesting in the streets and starting petitions and camping out outside of our congresspeople’s offices. All of the time and attention we put into checking our Facebook or Instagram and being shocked at celebrity outfits and breakups would certainly be better placed into calling for an overhaul of this system that is robbing people of the right to be healthy mentally.
There are organizations that seek to make this shift happen. I pray that help is on the way for the mental health of this country and this world. (Here’s what you can do to help.)
There is a way for all of us to support those who are struggling; to get them the help they need, and to help people live fulfilled lives free of the chains of mental illness and depression that lead one to suicide. (Again, here is the NAMI link. Use it to learn more, or to share with friends or loved ones who are suffering and need support.)
Suicide affects families forever. The shame, the fear, the misunderstandings, the “what if”s, the grief…it’s enormous. And it doesn’t go away. My hope is that by talking about it more, we can help heal wounds, help people get assistance, and help us create a world where mental health is a priority for our government.
If help had been available, the people I loved, who were loved by so many, they might still be here. They would not have had to die thinking there was no other option; no other way.
May the memories of those we’ve lost to suicide inspire us all to take action on behalf of those who still suffer, so that none of them will continue to suffer and be lost.
Here are a few ways to help: