Suicide is one of the most uncomfortable topics around. If we say we lost someone to suicide, it might be perceived as a weakness, a selfish act, a stain on their character. Not so if they died from cancer or heart disease. But like other ailments, suicide is uninvited. Suicide and the mental illness often associated with it are major public-health problems, and they’re growing.
A recent study out of Canada has found that suicide claimed the lives of 5 percent of pregnant women and new moms in Ontario between 1994-2008. Most had a mood or anxiety disorder, and they’d contacted someone about their mental health in the year before they died. And yet, they’re gone.
In the four years since I lost my brother to suicide, I’ve heard from others looking for help because someone they love ended his or her life. Despite the frequency, each story startles me. Part of me asks how it could be true: there’s something unbelievable about suicide.
But suicide is real. It keeps stealing lives, upending futures, and thwarting relationships. In the United States, it claims about 121 lives each day. We can’t afford to keep ignoring it. We’re still not talking about it in ways that will purge long-held misconceptions and the stigma associated with them.
While I was writing my book about postpartum depression (PPD), extended family and friends offered their views. One said PPD happens when new moms are spoiled. They just cry and complain because it’s not fun to take care of a baby. It’s not a form of mental
illness. Another held that when it comes to mental health, we need to toughen up and forge ahead. These are misconceptions, and they breed stigma.
We use the word stigma a lot, but we don’t often define it.
The dictionary says stigma “is a mark of disgrace or
What I’ve Learned
We don’t talk about suicide, either, because of stigma. Though I’ve written about my brother’s death, I don’t tell new friends or acquaintances how he died–unless I feel comfortable. I too don’t want to invite disgrace. But suicide is no disgrace. Living through my brother’s severe depression and suicide was a deep form of trauma. I sought group counseling afterward, which was a significant help.
For those of us who lose people to suicide, our paths can suddenly seem dark and crater-filled. If we don’t find our way toward healing and recovery, we might get stuck. Healing is something we build on a daily basis. It never stops.
When a new mother perishes, she leaves behind a child who’ll never know her, a spouse
thrust into single parenthood. My brother, Jim, died when his sons were teenagers. Amid the already fraught days of adolescence, they confronted not only their dad’s death, but the truth that he removed himself from their lives.
During that time, some who’d not experienced a suicide asked me, “How could he do
that to his children?” I understand why they saw it as a selfish act. Initially, I was angry at him for not holding on longer. We were always close, and we talked almost daily in the months before he died. Though I wanted to believe my wisdom would help bring him back to stasis, I knew it might not.
It’s been four years since Jim died. Suicide still confuses me. But I’ve learned a few things.
When people reach the point where they believe death will be a release from life’s pain, they’ve lost the one thing we all need: hope. They’re likely struggling with a form of mental illness, and they need help. Therapy is the most vital form of help out there. Medication is useful, too, especially in serious cases, but it’s important to understand the risks it brings. Stopping cold turkey, for instance, can make things worse. Each person responds differently to medicine, so it might take a few tries to find one that works best. This requires patience.
Maybe the most important thing I’ve discovered is that trauma plays a role in mental illness and suicide. The roots of my own postpartum depression were set in the traumatic birth of my first child, a jarring night in the ER shortly after he was born, and the death of my mom 20 years earlier.
My brother’s severe depression had several triggers, and he was confronting them before he died. He sought out therapists, he took the medication they gave him. I believe he needed a specialized therapist, one who knew more about high-functioning suicidal patients. Suicidal people don’t necessarily look sick. Unless you knew him well, Jim looked fine. Because he seemed to have the perfect life, his therapist said he was hard to treat.
Mental health is as important as physical health. In some ways, mental illness is more difficult to treat. We can track cancer and other maladies, and detect how well treatment works. With severe depression, a person may appear to progress, but on the inside, he or she is writhing. This is where talking comes into play. When we air our struggles with others, we benefit from something called shared suffering. We were designed for community like this–for extending love and compassion. Shouldering the weight of life is easiest when we’re together, especially on the darkest days.
We must keep talking about suicide, in thoughtful ways that bring hope, until it’s a plague no more.