Mental Health Month “Suicide”

The first time I was personally touched by suicide, a friend’s mom took her own life, her kids found her in the bath, I heard about it second-hand around the age of eight. I remember thinking how I would feel if I found a family member dead, and I tried to be nicer to my friend whose mom had died. I remember other kids said things about how the mom was selfish for doing it, I didn’t join in, there was even then, a part of me that didn’t see it that way.

The second time I was personally touched by suicide, my grandfather took his own life. He overdosed on Valium and was found the next morning when he hadn’t come down for breakfast. He was an artist and a long time Depressive, but despite that, everyone was shocked that a man still in his prime would consider death a better option. I remember people saying; “What a waste, he was so talented” and “How selfish, he had two children and a wife.” Although I didn’t think it at the time, I now wonder, does that mean it’s not selfish if you have no one? Is it more understandable or acceptable if you are not talented? Again, how things are phrased can stick with you.

At the time I saw my grandmother trying to come to terms with it. She ended up drinking the pain away, and developed an addiction to drinking for many years before she joined a cult and through this new-found sense of belonging quit drinking and became happy once more. Whilst we didn’t particularly like her being part of a cult we were glad for her restored peace of mind, but when I think back on it now, I also think we were relieved, we didn’t have to look in the face of grief anymore, everyone wanted to get on with things.

And that’s the hardest part of suicide, how people cope or do not cope after the fact.

Who is left behind, what fall-out carries on sometimes for generations.

One of the first questions a therapist asks is if anyone in your family has committed suicide, there is a reason for that. People whose family members commit suicide have a far higher risk of committing suicide themselves. Some have postulated whether this is ‘learned behavior’ or ‘permission granted’ or biological/in our DNA.

I can definitely see why people who have relatives who commit suicide would go one of two extremes. They are either going to be the last person to commit suicide, because they know first-hand its fall-out, or they may feel that because someone close to them did, it gives permission for them to follow suit. I can also see how some people are genetically at higher risk because something within their DNA makes it more favorable than for others. This doesn’t seem so very different from say, the God Gene.

There definitely are, as with addicts, two camps, the person who just won’t kill themselves under any circumstances and those who will. We may never quite know why, there may be many factors that go into that, but the people who are ‘at risk’ versus those who are not, are often hard to distinguish because in many ways they may both exhibit the same symptoms.

Many times I hear people say that those who commit suicide are ‘weak’ and ‘selfish.’ I have never thought they were. I see no good coming from condemning someone who was sad enough to take their own life. If we do it to discourage others, well it’s not really working, and whilst I would never advocating encouraging anyone to commit suicide or over-justifying those who do, I see no good in criticizing them after the fact. They made a decision, they chose to do it, who are we to say they are weak?

At the same time, we all hope someone will find the ‘strength’ or conviction to keep living. Nobody really approves of suicide except in extreme cases such as euthanasia for those who are suffering and in agonizing pain. Even then, in America, this is a very divided subject with those against, believing no murder is justified including the taking of ones own life, whilst others, often those who have seen it personally, can attest, some terminally ill people have the right to end their suffering.

So if we look at suicide of ‘healthy’ individuals, where do we place the depressed and the mentally ill on that scale? In some Scandinavian countries there have been people who have petitioned the Government to be euthanized based upon mental-illness. This has sparked outrage among those who believe this is tantamount to murder, and in no way qualifies as a terminal illness. Technically mental illness is rarely terminal although many ways, mental illness accompanies terminal diseases and exacerbates their symptomatology.

But even without being terminal, can mental illness ever be ‘bad’ enough to warrant or justify the taking of ones own life? And if we open that flood gate, how do we close it again?

I don’t claim to know the answer, I’m not sure anyone knows the answer yet but the side of suicide we don’t consider as often, isn’t just prevention or reason(s) behind suicide, but the aftermath.

Another friend of mine lost her mother to suicide. If I had to say, without hesitation I would say she became a more responsible, compassionate person as a result. But that doesn’t negate the extreme pain she still feels with the loss of her mom. Given a choice, every day she would wish for her mom’s return over any compassion she may have. The positives cannot outweigh the negative reality of losing someone you love.

If her mom had been deathly ill maybe she would have held a different view, I have never asked her, but either way, it is hard to imagine being ‘okay’ with someone’s suicide. That said, when Brittany Maynard committed suicide (euthanasia) in Oregon a while back I was profoundly moved by her videos and writing on the subject prior to her choice to end her life. Still very young and with a beautiful family, Brittany was terminally ill and knew in a matter of months she would be in excruciating pain and there was no cure and only awful suffering.

Many people condemned her for ‘taking the easy way out’ or ‘going against the will of God’ but I recall admiring her so much for her resolve and strength. I simply could not imagine making that choice, let alone going through with it. Her family moved to another State where Euthanasia is legal in order to be eligible and she made her plight and story public in an effort to educate people on the right to die. I believe in the right to die in part because of her efforts to show it is not the same as suicide.

With depression and other mental illnesses that are not responsive to treatment, it is not hard to imagine why people can be pushed to the brink and wish to end their lives. Should we consider euthanasia for severe cases of mental illness? Currently I don’t think we should but I recognize I may change my mind as more information becomes available. When I stop and think about living with say, Schizophrenia and other illnesses your entire life, in misery, without respite, and medications not working, I can definitely see why someone may wish to end their life. So why do I hesitate in condoning suicide or euthanasia in those cases?

Maybe because whilst we see mental illness as a disease, it’s not terminal and until something is actually ‘definitely’ going to take your life, we have this belief that there is hope, and we should not end our life based on feeling badly. Is this dismissive? I would say in some instances, yes, because there are chronic pain conditions that may include mental disease, that it could be argued, are as devastating to someone as a terminal illness. Perhaps we should give everyone the ‘right’ to choose if they live or die, and I would agree with this except for a worry that sometimes in certain mind-sets we don’t have the right objectivity to ‘choose’ without bias.

Mental illness is one of those biases. When you are mentally ill you can really see the world through a different lens. If you have not ever experienced that, believe me when I say, one day you can feel hopeful, the next it’s like the color was sucked out of the world and the pain you feel inside is unbearable and often without any cause. When that goes on for a prolonged period of time each day can be agonizing. It is definitely understandable that when people feel this way they may contemplate suicide.

The argument against this is – people typically commit suicide or attempt suicide when they are panicking or have calmly given up (the two extremes) they either panic that they will never feel differently and ‘stop the pain! stop it now! stop it any way you can!’ or they feel reconciled to their fate, they do not believe it will ever change, and so they give themselves permission to let go.

Perhaps that is why the very young and the very old are the two groups most likely to take their own lives.

As mentioned earlier, there are many who no matter how bad it got, would never commit suicide. That isn’t necessarily anything to do with personal fortitude or strength, it may be a genetic proclivity, or several factors, but they often perceive those who take their lives as inexplicable. They cannot and will not understand, and they feel understanding is condoning. I would argue, understanding is NOT condoning it’s understanding. We need more understanding.

Mental illness is not always visible, so we often do not know someone is suffering from it until it’s too late. Signs to look for include giving away what we own, a sudden sense of peace and feeling good, high anxiety and stress and the bequeathing of things previously withheld. Of course that’s not going to ensure you accurately predict whom among us is at risk, because just like in the film 13 Reasons, so many people exhibit signs and so many do not, and that’s no guarantee of anything. Additionally suicide can be a sudden choice, you literally realize in a moment and bam, it’s too late.

One population aside teenagers that I believe will increasingly be at risk for suicide is the elderly. More so because our grandparents social security and pensions were more robust than ours will be with some exceptions. It is simply more expensive to live nowadays and the money we will need to live even relatively well in old age, is often more than we can save and invest. Poverty and loneliness are two of the main reasons the elderly choose to take their lives. The third is illness. This can include mental illness. We sometimes believe the value of a person’s life diminishes with increasing age, but every life should have the same value.

The elderly have less resources than teens and in a way, less hope, because they are ageing toward death, whereas a teen has their entire life ahead of them. Sometimes hastening ones death can seem a good choice, to end suffering, loneliness, worry, financial concerns. The elderly can feel they are a burden, they can feel they are not wanted in our ever busy society that highlights youth. Additionally, are we ready as a society to take care of the many who will devleop dementia, which often carries alongside it, chronic depression? Is loading an eighty year old with heavy duty medications and antidepressants all we can to do help them?

Caregivers of the elderly will also experience mental health issues as a result of the hard work they do. Presently elderly patients are over medicated and have less resources for talk-therapy or other treatments. It is deemed simply easier to stick them on a lot of medications and hope they’ll die than treat their suffering compassionately and with an understanding their lives, however long, still hold value. Is it any wonder then that so many elderly are at risk of suicide and premature death? As long as we judge people based on their economic ‘worth’ and believe the elderly ‘had their time’ we will never improve this and rates of elder-abuse will grow.

So whilst we can do more to look out for people, we will never prevent someone from committing suicide if they are absolutely set on doing so. What we can do is save the ones who do not wish to and need a reason not to. It may seem absurd that anyone should really want to die, but there will always be people who do, they find different ways, they take risks, they drive their cars too fast, they may join a terrorist group. Often very unhappy people choose suicide by proxy, by putting themselves in danger and waiting to see if it will take them.

Suicide and mental health are always going to be interrelated and there is a lot the people around those people can do to prevent a successful suicide, but ultimately the best we can do is not judge those who die, for what possible good comes from that? Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to try to understand why someone did what they did. Sometimes there is nothing to understand. But with understanding we can learn, whereas if we simply condemn, we learn absolutely nothing.

Mental Health Month “Inferiority”

The next time you come across someone who has a mental illness, consider the following…

We poke fun at people calling them mentally ill (Trump) without really considering the effect such labeling may have on someone who IS mentally ill. In poking fun we are looking to someone we do not respect and saying ‘they’re mentally ill’ by implication, someone we do not respect is mentally ill – this is all bad.

Just like saying ‘he’s so gay’ or ‘that’s so gay’ you may mean nothing by it, (good grief who hasn’t said it at least once?) but it is implying a negative connotion.

White people cannot and rightfully so, use the N word, but black people can because they own the rights to that word over anyone else. Likewise if you are gay, you could say to another gay person ‘you are so gay’ and it wouldn’t be offensive because it’s about who is saying it to who. So the same applies to derogatory statements about mental health. If two people are sitting in a psych ward and say “Trump is mentally ill” that doesn’t have the same emotional fall out as if someone who is not mentally ill makes the claim.

That may be hard to undesrtand but it’s about sensisitivity and it’s just like any category of people. A Native American can make jokes about Native Americans but an Anglo person cannot. Is that Political Correctness run amock? Not really, when you consider the history behind this.

Much as I have heard some awful sexist jokes and the only person who could tell them should be a woman, and not even then. Bottom line; Don’t go there, it’s not worth it.

I would argue, black people are better off NOT using the N word, and the same applies to any group who may use derogatory jokes/statements about their group in jest, it’s probably not very funny. If that’s too PC then so be it, I don’t see it as a detriment to world humor if we reduce how many off-color jokes we tell.

Ultimately what we relate things to says a lot about what we think of them. If we compare mentally ill people to someone they know we despise, then it’s a criticism whether wrapped up in a joke or not. Next time you are tempted to joke about mental illness consider whether it’s really worth the punch line and the laughs, and whether it’s really funny or just a means of exploiting an already stigmatized group of people. If that seems too serious, so be it, mental illness IS serious just like racism is, sexism is, prejudice is.

What does the mentally ill person feel when they hear jokes and put downs related to mental illness? Inferior.

One may say, a person who suffers from a mental illness is already subject to feeling of inferiority and this is probably the case, therefore they are vulnerable to begin with, and every subsequent insult and attack adds to that feeling.

Again, I have heard people lament the ‘weakness’ and over-sensitivity, of mentally ill people. The typical taunt being; “Why do you have to be SO over-sensitive?”

I would argue, what does it take to be a little sensitive around someone you know is going through a hard time? What does it actually TAKE?

There are many people who identify or are HSP (Highly Sensitive People) and this is not always related to mental illness but the two have a relationship because of the difficulty  of being an HSP in a world of mostly harder-nosed types, proud of their ability to not be sensitive, who see any sensitivity as a weakness and are not afraid of saying so.

I’m not going to labor the point about the value of having sensitivity or the obvious detriment to compassion if we do not have any, because I know there are two sides to this, and with such extremes it is unlikely they will agree. I would only ask that less judgement and condemnation exist, permitting those who are sensitive to go about their lives unmolested.

If you are a HSP and have a mental illness, your struggle is often magnified by the accute awareness of your situation and others reactions and responses to you. If someone makes a joke at your expense that wounds you on a deeper level than those who are able to shrug it off. For some, sensitivity is perceived as a weakness of character and their attitude is one of a bully who takes pleasure in seeing the sensitive person react. If you know someone like that, maybe now is the time to call them on that.

The TV show Thirteen Reasons Why may not be a good example of mental illness, and is lacking in many ways, but one truism is the development of hurt in the main character by the insensitivity around her. This can be a determining factor that leads to the taking of your own life, as in her case. I would argue that she also hurt others, and this was not explored in the show sufficiently, nor was mental illness really examined which it should have been. But irrespective, it highlights the progression of hurt to someone with presumably a pre-existing mental condition, that acts as a trigger to take her own life.

We can be part of a reason why someone is crushed. We may not realize we have that power, and maybe knowing we do, will make us a worse tormenter, but if we want to avoid hurting others, which I hope most of you do, then considering what our words do to those who are more sensitive, doesn’t take very long, doesn’t cost anything and can literally make such a difference. It can stop someone who already is feeling inferior from feeling so inferior that they see no purpose in going on.

Everyone is equal. Nobody is inferior to someone else until they act badly and show their true colors.