UNTHINKABLE, MAYBE. UNEXPECTED, NO.
Recently, the unthinkable happened right in my backyard. An eighth-grade boy hung himself in the bathroom at his middle school, just as school was starting. Under any circumstance, this is troubling, but the fact that I have two daughters still in high school, and one that is on her way to college, makes this especially troublesome. To make matters worse, I find myself questioning my own choice of words, is what really happened unthinkable? This is becoming such a common occurrence, that we start to question why our daily dose of news or Facebook feed doesn’t include some story of tragedy and sadness of a young person ending their own life.
Fortunately, I am not a father who has lost one of his children to suicide, nor am I person who has lost someone close to me who felt there was no other way out. However, I am someone who WILL make a difference and save lives in this world, this I promise!
You probably are asking yourself who am I, what is my motivation, and why am I so confident that I will change the way we approach mental illness? For years, I have watched the progression of mental health and all the “awareness” initiatives. I have watched all the school boards consistently roll out new resources and protocols. I have watched parents who have lost children speak to teachers, parents, and students. I have watched the professionals inundate students with facts, figures, and resources, all while preaching that there is no shame in being depressed. Even though all of this is great and substantiates the efforts we are making in mental health awareness, we are missing the mark, and it’s a huge mark we are missing.
When it comes to psychology, I don’t have a PhD, or master’s degree. Heck, I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree, so do my two required psychology classes in college make me an expert? No, but having had a gun locked and loaded, sitting on my temple does. Having a rope tied off around my neck, while my daughter was in the other room does. Being brutally bullied in school, jumped, and beat up by kids who posed as my friends, teased by parents about being so skinny, makes me an expert. So, when people tell me they understand what people like me are going through, not only do I take offense, but it reiterates the lack of “real” mental health awareness in our society.
No matter where we look nowadays, we hear or see messages telling us how important mental health awareness and education is. What exactly are we educating? What is it that we are trying to make others aware of? Who is doing the educating and spreading the awareness? Let’s wake up and realize it’s not working as it should, suicide rates are increasing daily.
Instead of preaching that we all need to understand mental illness, especially depression, we can start by educating parents, educators, and even therapists, that they DON’T understand. Just like it’s ok for those of us with mental illness to accept that we have an illness, it should be the same for anyone who doesn’t have a mental illness to accept, and own, that they don’t understand, and they never will! Not to sound callous, but even a parent of a child who commits suicide, only understands what another parent who suffered the same loss is going through. So that parent speaking to a gymnasium of students may have an emotional impact on them, but unless that parent is suffering from mental illness themself, they cannot connect, and probably aren’t doing much to stop a future suicide victim sitting in those bleachers. How could hearing firsthand, how their classmate, lab partner, teammate, or kid in the hallway, has affected the lives’ of so many people by committing suicide, not make one of those kids realize they have a problem and seek help? Because it’s not that simple.
You see, one of our biggest hurdles in the fight against identifying and treating mental health illness is instinct. Yes, our own human instinctive nature needs to be reckoned with to win the fight against suicide. As humans, when we see someone who needs help, we instinctively try to understand what they are going through and feeling. Especially when it comes to things that make us uncomfortable, we tend to simplify the issue and blame it on something we can relate to, or with a current situation.
For example, when I was younger, and suddenly would become emotional, full of sadness and didn’t want to get out of bed, my mom would instinctively connect my actions to some reason she could understand. She might say something like, “Ryan, you’re not going to pass your exams by staying in bed all day.” Was I down and out because I was stressed about my exams? Maybe, but not likely. The fact that it was exam week just happened to coincide with my feeling so blah, so to her, that had to be the reason. If it wasn’t exam week, there would always be another reason to blame for my sadness, maybe I hated school or riding the bus, or just didn’t like the meatloaf she made for dinner the night before. It’s human nature to try and justify the reason for things, especially those we don’t understand. What my mom could never understand is that I wasn’t depressed because of those specific reasons, which would have made the most sense to her, but my behaviors were because I was depressed. My depression was the reasons, not the other way around.
When my daughter showed signs of depression, my initial reaction was to instinctively connect it to a situation going on at that time. But the difference was I DID UNDERSTAND, I GOT IT. I knew right away not to pigeon-hole her actions to something specific, and I realized that she may not be able to control her depression, and If she was like me, she had no chance of just shrugging it off, or having a positive response to some of the common phrases we often hear.
“Will you just get out of your mood.”
“Life isn’t that bad, stop being so depressed.”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Stop being unappreciative and just moping.”
“Get out of bed and stop being lazy or irresponsible.”
Just because my mother went through bouts of breast cancer, and I was there for her diagnosis and treatment, I couldn’t understand what it’s like to have breast cancer. I certainly would never tell someone suffering with cancer that I “understand” what they are going through. I don’t believe I have the right to say that, nor should I ever think I understand. When it comes to someone who is supporting a person battling cancer, then I can speak to it. My stepfather is an alcoholic, and just because I used to drink a lot, and often, does that give me the right to say I understand what he’s dealing with? No, because like mental illness, there are underlying scientific or chemical factors, that unless properly diagnosed and treated, are beyond our control.
Think of it like this, being depressed doesn’t necessarily mean one suffers from depression, or mental illness. Similarly, someone who drinks regularly doesn’t have to be an alcoholic. In both these instances, lack of knowledge and not knowing the signs can be deadly! We cannot dismiss what we think as someone feeling down or “just” depressed, as something more. If you take nothing else from this article, and you want some real mental health awareness, always be aware that one of the most common phrases I hear from parents talking about their loss is, “he (or she) seemed depressed, but then they were fine.”
If we were to personify depression and mental illness, they would go down as the greatest illusionists of all time. Imagine our brain in a house of mirrors, and not only is everyone else seeing us by our reflections in all the different mirrors, but we also see ourselves in the mirrors. This is very important to remember, because if you’re not sure that someone is suffering from mental illness, I can assure you that they probably don’t know either. That’s a scary thought. Depression truly is a house of mirrors, and the cure is when we all know what mirror we are looking into.
In my situation, I was very hard to diagnose because I never thought there was anything wrong with me. I was normal and how dare you tell me otherwise. There is a very false preconception that someone who suffers from mental illness is the person who can’t get out of bed or function, or sits all alone in the back of the school bus staring out the window, or alone at lunch talking to themselves. I was a highly decorated police officer for over 13 years, father of three beautiful daughters, and very active in my community, including coaching my daughters’ activities. One of my greatest police commendations was for saving a suicidal man, and after hours of sitting in the freezing cold talking to him about his daughters, we walked out of the woods together. How could anyone have known that I was on a path to suicide? I didn’t even know!
Remember, we don’t need to understand everyone, it is our job as parents, friends, educators, and fellow humans to help someone who needs help. To do this, we need to make that person become Aware they need help, Recognize & Realize they have a specific illness to overcome, take Ownership of their mental illness, and Where help is available to them.
I am one of the very lucky ones who was able to survive against all odds. I faced death several times, and am now here for good because on November 18, 2018, someone who knew the signs, and what to do with them, knocked on my door. That is the day she made me aware that I was in trouble and suffered with bipolar depression. It was three days later that I learned to recognize and realize for myself that I was ill, and I decided that I was going to ‘own’ my illness. It is me and I will not be ashamed, nor will I hide from it. She led me where I needed to go for help, and my daughters have their father and for those of you reading this, you have me!
Where to go for help