When I was 12 years old I had my first brush with suicide. A family member had attempted it once previously and was successful on her next try. While any survivor of suicide will inevitably feel the sickening absence of their loved one, I experienced an additional loss, that being the opportunity to discuss, process, and make sense of what had happened in my young mind. The event became the elephant in the room throughout my family, the dirty little happening that, while it was never explicitly stated, was not to be discussed. As a result I was simply left with the impression that my family member had committed suicide because she was crazy. No further explanation was provided or offered. I did not receive any counseling or education regarding mental illness and was, therefore, left to draw my own conclusions with an adolescent brain that was ill-equipped to do so.
There are many myths regarding suicide that are perpetuated by people that view life from the perspective of not understanding the intense and unique emotional suffering of the desperate individuals that go through with this most destructive of acts. Following the tragic death of Robin Williams in 2014, Henry Rollins famously condemned him in the press, stating that he had lost respect for Williams and that he could not understand how someone that had so much going for him could have even a single bad day. As a mental health professional I can confidently state that, while I am by no means offering any sort of formal diagnosis of Robin Williams (and that it would be grossly irresponsible and unprofessional for me to do so), the actor’s behavior off-set and stage hinted at symptoms of ADHD and mania (which is almost always accompanied by minor or severe depression). He was also reportedly dealing with the diagnosis of a grave physical illness.
The truth is that none of us will ever truly understand the depths of this entertainer’s pain. It is impossible to fully put yourself in someone else’s shoes and, in my experience, the people that actually take their own lives are the least likely to let on that they are suffering. I learned this the hard way when my life fell apart at the age of 23. I had been an active addict for several years and had stopped using abruptly, only to find that all of the psychological symptoms I had been unknowingly medicating began to manifest themselves in my sober life. From the outside my life appeared to be perfect. I had a decent car, good grades, a nice wardrobe, a loving family, and a pretty girlfriend. People were shocked when I entered 12 step recovery as they had trouble seeing me as a suffering addict in need of help. For the first four years of my sobriety I rarely shared with people outside my immediate circle of friends and I stayed in the same codependent relationship in which I had wrought so much emotional destruction. My mental anguish was so severe that I would have gladly given all my worldly possessions if only someone could immediately alleviate my fear, depression, and anxiety.
Only then was I able to revisit my family member’s suicide from a completely different perspective. To this day I wholeheartedly believe that I have been as humanly close to that path myself without crossing the line. I actually felt a kinship and closeness with my loved one knowing the magnitude of pain she suffered, albeit under different external circumstances. Emotions are the universal language that is experienced by all people regardless of race, culture, sexual orientation, culture, or socioeconomic status. We all understand joy and we all understand pain. We all feel loss and happiness. I no more blame someone suffering from unbearable emotional suffering for committing suicide than I would condemn a man on fire for jumping into a lake. The difference is that emotional pain is a soul-eroding illness that becomes increasingly and progressively worse as time goes by.
So what can we do for such people to provide them with the necessary life-saving interventions? The truth is that I do not have all the answers. I know that removing the stigma from getting help for mental illness will go a long way toward accomplishing this goal. On a personal level I have a habit of connecting with people in most places I go, establishing at least a minimal bond with them as a matter of course. My experiences in recovery and as a social worker make it damn near impossible for me to do so and I have ended up having many people confide to me that they are suffering in some way. Being present and engaging with those around you, even in the most seemingly insignificant of ways, can have a profound impact. Ask someone how their day is and then listen. I find that people want to be known, understood, and acknowledged and that most people have at least some psychological scars that still impact their daily lives years after the fact. I don’t advocate trying to be anyone’s therapist, but I do believe in the power of being caring and understanding. You never know how much the slightest gesture will affect someone when they are going through a tough time. Until next time.