This morning I woke up and checked Facebook while still in bed, only to see a friend posting about Anthony Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain? My brain started working… why would she be posting about him? What happened?
I did some research, quickly discovering that Anthony Bourdain is now yet another victim of suicide. Two celebrities this week: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. But of course, as my brother reminded me, they are not the first, and tragically will not be the last.
And what of all the people—loved ones, family members, friends, classmates, etc.—who kill themselves but don’t make the headlines? What about them?
The reality is that suicide is a growing problem. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2016, “suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.” In that same year, “there were more than twice as many suicides in the United States as there were homicides.”
These statistics ought to be staggering to us. And yet, what do we do about it? What are we doing? Is it enough? Will it ever be?
Ignorance and Bliss
Many simply don’t talk about it or ignore what is going on. They don’t make any mention of the Kate Spade’s or Anthony Bourdain’s in our world or their lives. But let me tell you something: ignoring mental illness and suicide do not make them go away. Far from it. In fact, ignoring them can make them even worse in many cases. Like a cut that festers and gets infected if you “ignore it,” mental illness will often seep and grow and invade all parts of your life if you simply try ignore it. In fact, suicide can be a direct result of ignoring a mental illness, and not talking about suicide isn’t going to make someone not consider it. It will not end the epidemic.
“Money isn’t Everything”
Some don’t ignore the topic, but they say something like “well, I guess money and fame don’t buy happiness!” like it’s the fault of successful celebrities that they killed themselves, like their “greed” or their prominence led to their “downfall.”
First of all, nothing “buys happiness.” Second of all, money and fame are not inherently evil. Thirdly, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are penniless and living in a hole in the ground, middle class and average, or fabulously famous and wealthy. Mental illness is real, and it is powerful. It can hit anyone, at basically any time.
The Blame Game
Some people blame the person who takes their own life, like it was their fault to literally or figuratively pull the trigger. Yet, if the person had died because of a physical illness like cancer or ALS, those people would not be blaming the individual (see a great tweet from Warwick Bell on this subject—he said it beautifully).
You don’t say, “well, it’s too bad you didn’t get care earlier for your leukemia. It’s your fault you died. There’s a place for you in Hell.”
Mental illness is just that—an illness, just like cancer, endometriosis, diabetes, or whatever other illness. It is chronic. It is awful. And it often comes with physical symptoms or as a result of other illnesses, relationship issues, genetics, life challenges, etc. Our mental health is intertwined with everything in our lives, so we should have more compassion on those who have mental health challenges rather than judging or blaming them.
But, some say, “they still chose to take their own life. Kate Spade still had to hang herself. So and so purposefully overdosed or shot himself” or whatnot. But until you have been in their minds and understood what they were going through, you have no right to judge or blame.
I have been at the point more than once where I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I prayed that I would die in my sleep. I thought about what it would be like if I simply walked into the road and let a car hit me. I thought about the relief that would bring—to not have to be a prisoner to my mind, to my mental illness.
Because, when you live with a mental illness, sometimes just thinking that this is your reality, that this is what you have to deal with everyday for the rest of your life, makes you want to end it all. It makes you want to be done. It feels too exhausting to continue. You think, what is the point? And until you have been there, sitting on the toilet crying because you just can’t live with your mind one more day, feeling utterly and completely alone, do not tell someone that it is “their choice.”
There comes a point where it feels as if the mental illness has made the choice for you, where it has convinced and driven you to the point that not being alive is the relief, where there is no conceivable hope in your mind for a better or different future. It’s like the mind is “broken” or not whole at this point—like maybe how the arteries clog and a person has a heart attack—but we don’t blame them, saying “well, a normal heart couldn’t clog and stop working. What’s wrong with that person?!”
Instead, we acknowledge that there are times when our bodies fail—when they give up—when they simply can’t go on in their current state and things need to change or it’s game over. Why can we acknowledge this so readily with hearts but not with minds?
Here’s a Hotline
There are those who do not ignore or blame, but instead post suicide hotline numbers and/or encourage people to talk to someone, to get help. This is good, but it is not enough. It’s a start. But it’s almost like hearing a friend has cancer and then giving them a bandaid and saying, “hey, maybe you should go get yourself a first aid kit. And if you want to talk about how it sucks to have cancer, I’m here for you.”
But Then What Can We Do?
So what is a good response? What can we do? Well, it sort of goes back to the whole “thoughts and prayers” thing. Yeah, saying “thoughts and prayers” might make us feel better about ourselves, like we are doing something and showing everyone else that we “care,” but we need to actually take action. We need to change. Yes, we—all of us—need to change, whether or not we have a mental illness.
Why? Because we live in a society and culture together, with other people. These other people likely have mental illnesses or know someone who does. And how we act and the things we do and say matter.
The Way We Talk
We need to stop making jokes about mental illness. Stop saying you are “so OCD” or “bipolar” or whatever else in a joking way. Mental illnesses are not jokes, and even saying things like that signals to people that you do not take mental illness seriously. It further stigmatizes mental illness and may prevent a friend from opening up to you.
It’s Good to Get Care
Mental health care needs to be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, or worse, something to be ashamed of. Even my seven year old has somehow gotten the idea that going to the therapist is “weird,” not normal, or means something is “wrong” with him. Just like kids get hearing and vision tests at school or we have biannual dental checks or yearly physicals, we need to make mental health care that standard and normalized. The stigma of getting help needs to be eliminated or people will be afraid to do it or to ask for needed care.
Talking About It Naturally
We have to start talking openly about mental health and mental illness, in nonjudgmental ways and unashamedly. If we hide the fact that we have a mental illness, we are likely less willing to go to therapy or get help for ourselves. But if we normalize having mental health challenges, people will see how common it is and we can begin to have discussions, share recommendations, and increase the likelihood that people will recognize when they are having mental health problems. If they can do that, then can hopefully get the care they need before things get out of hand.
Asking the Hard Questions
In my Youth Mental Health First Aid course, we had to practice looking at someone else in the class and ask them, multiple times, “Have you ever thought about killing yourself?” and “Are you thinking about killing yourself now?”
We practiced so that we will be ready to talk about it when the need arises. We practiced so it wouldn’t be so “scary” in the future. We practiced so we knew how and what to say. And then we were taught to ask follow up questions if they answered yes, like “Have you decided how?” “Have you decided when?” and “Have you taken any steps to access the things you would need?”
We have to be able to talk about these things. Yes, it is scary. Yes, we hope we never will have to ask those questions. But yes, we have to be able to do it, not just to pass the buck to a suicide hotline and pat ourselves on the back for doing our bit. It may be your best friend, your spouse, or your child that you may someday need to ask. Asking the question directly and multiple times might make the difference. Don’t be afraid.
Help Them Get Help
But then, as we also learned in our Mental Health First Aid course, don’t feel like it’s all on you. Just like we take first aid courses for cuts or car accidents or injuries but we don’t expect ourselves to then have to cure the person or set their broken bones, mental health first aid isn’t about saving a person either. It’s about stabilizing the situation and preventing further harm until qualified professionals can take over and help the person.
Encourage people to do more than call a hotline. Encourage them to get help, not just in the future but right now. Stay with them. Be the support they need. My husband had to call the therapist and set up my appointment for me the first time because I literally couldn’t make that call, even though I knew I needed to do it.
As we were taught if someone answered “Yes” to the suicide questions, you don’t then leave the person alone or leave it up to them to get help or not. You speak to them. You don’t threaten. You stay positive. You give them choices but you don’t abandon them. What if they try to leave or don’t want you to stay? We were instructed to say, “I can’t let you do that. I value your life too much to leave you alone right now.” And then you get proper care—you can ask them if they want to call or if you can take them to the hospital.
A Continuing Issue
Mental illness is not easy. It is not comfortable. There are not simple answers. There aren’t “once and done” solutions. But those of us with mental health challenges need advocates. We need open dialogue. We need more therapists and counselors. We need access to care. We need more than just hotlines for emergency situations—we need people to take mental illness and mental health care seriously before it gets to suicide or suicidal behavior or thoughts. We need more than just thoughts and prayers. We need action and change.