Note: I originally wrote this piece two years ago, in my “10 Posts in 10 Days” project at the one year anniversary of my brother’s death. Last year, I linked back to it during Mental Illness Awareness Week and asked people to share. It became a very popular post and I was moved to hear from people across the globe, grateful for the advocacy, many of them “coming out” about their illness. I am updating this post just a bit this year and humbly request you share it as well. You never know whose family it might touch or whose life it might save.
Unspeakable: On Suicide and Mental Illness
Did you know that we were completely blindsided by my brother’s suicide?
Even though he had a serious mental illness. Even though we are a knowledgeable, well-read, proactive and supportive family. Even though we all LIVED together during his attempted recovery. Even though my father is an M.D. and my mother has a PhD. in Psychology. Even though we have a family history of serious mental illness and attempted suicide AND successful suicide. Even though we watched the light in his eyes go out and never come back on.
That is pathetic if you ask me. Of course, there are details and nuances that contributed to our lack of awareness, but I think it’s important to be totally honest about how clueless we were.
For example, I did not know until the day after he died (and neither did my parents), when I did a Google search, that Bipolar Disorder has a significant mortality rate. Exact statistics vary according to the source, but around 50% of people with Bipolar Disorder attempt suicide and half of those are successful. That is a TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT mortality rate. That means he had a LETHAL disease. Like cancer or heart disease. Deadly.
None of us really knew this. I don’t even know if Andy knew how deadly his disease was (from the public health perspective, that is) because we did not talk about it after his initial diagnosis and hospitalization. Actually, I never talked about it with him at all. At one point my mom shared with me that when he was asked about suicidal thoughts, as is standard intake procedure when you are hospitalized for mental illness, he was ADAMANT that he would never do that, that he couldn’t. After attending the memorial of one of his dearest friend’s brothers who died by suicide, he shared how horrifying it was, and that he would never do that to his family.
When I heard this second-hand, I breathed a sigh of relief. PHEW! Now I didn’t have to think about that nasty word “suicide” again. Besides, that happens to other people, right? Other families. Certainly not ours.
If just one person had sat down with us or sent us a letter that said: THERE IS A LIKELIHOOD YOUR LOVED ONE WILL DIE FROM THIS ILLNESS…perhaps this story would have had a different ending. I’m not saying that Andy would still be alive or would have never attempted to take his own life. I’m just saying that we would have gone from victims to advocates. Awareness is everything.
We REALLY need to step up our game when it comes to how we handle mental illness in this country. It is everywhere. Impacts EVERYone. But no one really wants to talk about it.
I find this ironic considering our vernacular is riddled with references to mental impairment. Think about it:
It’s driving me crazy!
Just another Manic Monday.
I wanted to shoot myself in the head.
I hate my life.
I’m losing my mind.
Step back from the ledge.
He has a screw loose.
She’s not all there.
The lights are on but nobody’s home.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point.
Generally speaking, we know these illnesses exist, but we don’t fully understand them. We don’t know what to do about them or how to support or interact with those who live with them. We may struggle to talk to our own family member or best friend, let alone know how to help the larger populations where mental illness is such a huge obstacle (among the homeless or incarcerated, for example).
Today, we are right in the middle of MENTAL ILLNESS AWARENESS WEEK (sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness or NAMI).
To give you a basic idea, NAMI says serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.
Other mental illnesses include anxiety disorders, Autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, Panic Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, eating disorders, dual diagnosis with substance abuse disorders, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Dissociative Disorders and more.
It is a near guarantee that you or someone you dearly love lives with or has experienced one of these illnesses. I also venture a guess that there are many people in your circle who suffer silently. Certainly, we all have more to learn about these diseases and disorders and how we can support those who live with them.
SUICIDE itself is a condition associated almost entirely with mental illness. It is really important that we remember this. Suicide is not a cop-out.
I want to be absolutely clear that just because one has a mental illness does NOT mean he or she will contemplate or attempt suicide. That said, please know that:
- Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have been diagnosed with mental illness.
- In the United States, someone attempts suicide approximately every 30 seconds
- An average of 1 person every 13 minutes succeeds in killing themselves
- Suicide is the 10th ranking cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide and on the rise), but the 3rd in young people. It is also the only leading cause of death that continues to rise.
- Some of the mental illnesses most commonly associated with suicide include
depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders (including borderline
personality disorder), anxiety disorders (including posttraumatic stress disorder and
panic attacks) and eating disorders (including bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa).
• Substance abuse and addiction are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
• Older age is associated with increased risk of suicide.
• People of all races and ethnicities are at risk for suicide.
• While scientists have not discovered one specific gene that causes suicide, it is known
that people with a family history of suicide are at increased risk.
- Although military members comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, veterans represent
20 percent of suicides nationally. Each day, about 22 veterans die from suicide.
- SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE!
Suicide prevention is up to you. And me. All of us. Not just the psychiatrists and therapists and pharmaceuticals. It’s up to the families and friends and communities of the people at risk. Here is more information about suicide and here you will find what to look for and what to do in terms of identifying and assisting someone who might be at risk for attempting suicide.
In honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week, and in the name of ACTION over complacency, I am inviting you to do THREE things this week that will change your view point and could save a life someday. Are you up for the challenge?
- I invite you to look up more information on 3 mental illnesses you have heard of but don’t fully understand. This won’t take long. Try to find one major fact about each one that will help broaden your perspective. NAMI is a great place to start your research.
- I invite you to have an actual conversation with someone else about one of these mental illnesses or mental illness in general. Compare notes. Spread the word. Share this blog. Share this post. Tell Andy’s story. Put it out there.
- This is kind of like extra credit, but I invite you to set a goal to read Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison in the next 6 months. Why? Because I read it AFTER my brother died instead of before. It would have made a difference for us…don’t let that happen to you. Dr. Jamison is a psychiatrist who lives with a mental illness (Bipolar Disorder) and studies suicidology. At age 28, she attempted suicide after years of experiencing suicidal thoughts. She lived to tell, study and teach about it. I consider these credentials solid, don’t you? Who better to explain this reality! It is NOT an easy book to read, but it is absolutely worthwhile.
I know there are a lot of “causes” out there. A lot of “awareness” weeks and walks and pins and ribbons and efforts, all worthy of our time, dedication and love. Why not become as AWARE as possible? Will you accept my invitation and join me in this challenge this week? If so, please take a moment to comment on this post or on my Facebook page. Share this post, pay it forward…let’s get this conversation started and keep it going.
Let’s speak, finally, about the unspeakable.