On A Serious Note

I was all set to write about the equality #win that just took place in New York, until I went to work this weekend and saw some of the paper headlines and realized that’s it’s about time to write about something hiding in my closet first.

What were the headlines? From some of the New York papers: a woman tried to commit suicide but was grabbed by police after she jumped. From some of the local beach papers in New Jersey: a young man committed suicide while in prison for drug possession. These are things that I imagine people enjoy with their morning coffee.

I studied this during my Media Ethics and Law class. No one tell Professor Olson, but I don’t exactly remember anything we talked about. For what I think is a valid reason though.

I’m a suicide survivor.

What this means is that someone in my close family (by blood or by fate) has cause of death: suicide listed on their death certificate. I’m extremely careful in my wording here because the terminology of “committing suicide” is contentious in most “survivor circles.” (I’m wading through this new little unwanted club I’m in as best as I can.)

I’d been toying with this post for awhile. It’s part of who I am now, this isn’t a piece of my identity I can change. However, I now notice myself jumping or starting when I hear people make offhand comments about how they’d rather kill themselves than go to an exam or they could slit their wrists out of boredom. I’m not off to to get up on a self-righteous podium because I know I don’t deserve to be there. I’ve made a couple of those comments, not that extreme, but they’ve been said. What I seek is understanding.

There’s a stigma associated with suicide that continues to boggle my mind. It’s a large part as to why I keep this particular identity card so close to my chest. There’s a good level of variation with that stigma as well, one I stumbled on in a political science class last semester. For some people, like war veterans, the stigma is eased – because of their public experiences and the sheer magnitude of feelings from participating in a war, these are more valid situations for suicide than someone suffering from a mental illness. Those with mental illness are viewed as quitters; they just gave up.

(As an aside, PTSD, which most war veterans come back with…is a mental illness. So where’s the difference? And more importantly, who are any of us to make judgments or evaluations on people’s lives. Everyone faces a daily struggle of some kind, only you can evaluate your own struggles and successes. No one else.)

I haven’t had this role long, but I daresay stigma is 95% of the problem. It’s because of this stigma that people are less inclined to get help. It’s probably because of that that my family, friends and I had no idea this particular individual was suffering. The other 5% is probably just a lack of understanding. Mental illness is complicated. It’s usually defined as a spectrum, making it difficult to define if you’re having a bad day or if there’s an underlying issue.

I don’t know what it will take to fix either, but I have this newfound proactive nature that fuels me to make sure no one else will find themselves in this situation. And now I speak selfishly of myself because that’s how this whole thing started. I don’t know how to get help for those suffering, but for those who we’ve already lost: respect their families and friends.

Do you know how hard it is to mourn the loss of a family member or dear friend, in general? Let alone when suicide is the cause? Fortunately, (because this particular loss isn’t discussed in that context) none of us have had to hear those comments, at least not directly.

That Media Ethics class? There was an hour we sat discussing what those headlines and pictures do for media and the conversation turned to the families. And there was a student who was particularly…I don’t know what the politically correct term is, but I wanted to hit her. I don’t usually have these emotions (I was also still fairly emotionally charged from the entire situation.)

Comments like the person was selfish or wasn’t thinking of their family and friends, that they must have been a weak human being to be able to “man up and just deal like everyone else.” Comments like the person wasn’t loved or just starved for attention. Those are just a snippet, but those are just the seeds. There have been many more, and far uglier comments.

Who is that helping? Certainly not me. And certainly not anyone else in this awful club.

All I ask is: think before you speak. You never know who’s wandering among you and what they’ve suffered or may be going through. Whether intended or not, your words and actions have an impact that reach a farther net that you may have intended to cast.

Educate yourselves. That’s part of the battle.

Those of you who may be suffering from mental illness, or think you might be, there’s help available. There’s also a network of supporters, who walk quietly next to you.



6 thoughts on “On A Serious Note

  1. Guilty as charged, although I say it less after I had a friend kill herself about 10 years ago. Things creep back into conversation more as time goes by, but I was equally sensitive about language like that in the aftermath. Not sure why I am thinking about this now, but I probably have a stronger reaction when I see the FML tag on Twitter.

    I think this is why I like the #firstworldproblems hash on Twitter. If we’re going to use overly dramatic language, I would hope it comes with a nod to the fact that our problems are sometimes a matter of context.

  2. I found your blog on Facebook. I am sorry for your loss. As a professional counselor, I can say that I agree with everything you wrote. I also will add that there is so much more that we don’t know about suicide than what we do. The loss for those left behind is profound and misunderstood. I don’t know if there are groups in your area for loved ones who have completed suicide, but many of my clients have found those groups helpful. Thanks for writing a profound piece that is so honest and personal.

  3. I found your blog on FB through Jeremy. Suicide is such a complex situation for everyone. As someone who struggles with depression and comes from a family with mental illness I know how helpless you can feel on both sides of the issue. You are courageous to put your thoughts and feelings out there. Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. I’ve found, in my experience, that a supportive community does make all the difference. Grief can be so overwhelming and hard to carry on your own. There is always one idiot in the crowd content to stay in their ignorance but I’ve found support and caring in some unlikely places and solidarity in people I would have never imagined.

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