Last week millions mourned at the sudden loss of a prime time icon. Known for his sense of adventure and connecting his viewers to unknown places around the world. Not only did he gain followers by his boldness in trying all kinds of foods which may disqualify a fear factor competitor, but he was known by his ability to engage strangers from all cultures and become their friend. He was charismatic. He was talented. He had friends literally across the globe. And he died alone by suicide. How could such a loving and well respected human take his own life when he had the world at his fingertips?
I remember in 2014 hearing about the loss of another Hollywood icon who always presented confident and over the top hilarious. I grew up watching Mork and Mindy and one of my favorite movies was Hook. Robin Williams remains one of my favorite comedians to this day and my heart breaks for what pain was lurking beneath the boisterous surface.
Tomorrow will be seven weeks from the morning I woke to the most painful call I have ever remember receiving. “Are you okay?” The person on the other end asked? “Are you in a good place?” “Do you have people around you today?” Chills ran through my body. I was home alone, and, no, I was not in a very good place, and I just wanted the person to say the inevitable. I replied with something to the nature of, “Please just tell me what is going on.” ……………………………….
“She’s gone”, said the broken voice.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation very clearly as I tried keeping my voice calm and attempted being collected for the other person. Yet upon hanging up the call I nearly dropped my phone and fell to my knees in the middle of my living room floor as though the wind had been kicked out of me completely. When I finally caught my breath, I began wailing and sobbing so loudly, I am surprised I didn’t concern the neighbors. My young, talented, outgoing, tenacious friend lost her battle the morning following her senior prom. I would have attended my young friend’s graduation last week. But instead, I attended their funeral just a few weeks prior. “This is not how it is supposed to be”, I shuttered to another young friend who accompanied me to the graveside. “Not. It isn’t” she stated in a quiet and reserved voice. Hope reminds me, I am not alone in this. I cannot help but wish my dear friend was able to just hang on to this hope a little longer. Sometimes we all need a little hope to get us through the darkest of storms.
How does this happen? We are often left with more questions than answers in these moments. As a trainer in Mental Health First Aid, I am instructed to teach trainees that there are always signs and symptoms. Similar to CPR, we practice assessing for risks and how to provide support for someone in distress until professional help arrives. We attempt to educate parents, teachers, clergy, law enforcement, and the general public on discerning signs and symptoms. We provide opportunity for individuals to increase their confidence by rehearsing asking the big question. We provide information and resources available to help prevent such situations. And finally, we strongly emphasize that in some cases, in spite of all our efforts, there may be some who will still die by suicide. It is important we not shame ourselves in the process. This is easier said than done when there is no limit to our desire to care for those who are hurting.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States is estimated there are 25 attempts for every completion.
It is time we pay attention.
Instantly woven into the news release of Anthony Bourdain’s death, on all the major networks, were the words, “If you are struggling, please reach out.” Reaching out is not as easy as it sounds for those who struggle and depression is not as easy to detect when some have developed the ability to appear strong or utilize humor to mask or deflect the pain. I can tell you this from personal experience.
Within this past year, I had a bout where I could not fall asleep and all I felt was alone, hopeless and empty. Though it was situational, I honestly have no memory of what triggered this episode. There wasn’t even a prayer or hopeful thought which I could grab onto to get me out of this funk. All I remember is my thoughts were racing between calling a friend or checking myself into a hospital. These thoughts were accompanied by not wanting to bother my friend in the middle of the night and feeling completely paralyzed by my anxiety that I could not move to even pick up the phone. (I have since learned that there are seemingly basic over the counter allergy medications which can increase these feelings and I caution anyone who takes any medication to pay attention to the potential side effects.) While my moments have been momentary and situational, I cannot imagine the pain of those who live with this on a daily basis.
Growing up in the evangelical church, I was somehow taught to believe mental illness had more to do with a spiritual problem or not having enough faith. I have since learned to view the validity of various mental illnesses as any other illness. Would we tell a cancer patient that their lack of faith is the reason for their illness? Or someone who lives with diabetes or an amputee? While I do not intend to question anyone’s beliefs about faith and healing, I do propose we approach mental illness like any other. If you are one who prays, we can still offer prayers while encouraging a loved one to get help in the same way we might encourage one to see a doctor if they are experiencing adverse physical conditions. We pray for the wisdom of doctors and for the “Lord’s will be done”, and we can do the same for those pursuing treatment thus helping to reduce the negative stigma.
I have a theory about a cause of depression and other mental health diagnosis which I will share in the second part of this post tomorrow. For now, I do not want to leave you with a heavy ending, but rather speak up for those who are struggling. Reaching out for help is an up hill battle. For those who are struggling, please know you are not alone and recovery IS possible. Cultivate hope where you can. Find the silver linings. Know your coping skills. Take deep breaths. Write. Read. Exercise. Drink more water. Do whatever you need to do to be safe. The other day I pulled a good friend aside at work and told him I would have a significant stretch of days where my son would not be with me in a few weeks. I expressed that I needed him to check in with me periodically on those days because those days are the most difficult for me. Reaching out can be really hard, but it can feel easier.
For those on the other end who might have concerns, but are not sure what to say, please do not worry about jeopardizing a relationship or not knowing the right words. If a loved one crosses your mind and you feel compelled to reach out, I can only imagine it is not an accident. There is nothing wrong with “Hi. For some reason you have been on my mind and heart and I thought I would give you a call. How are you doing?” I believe strongly in intuition and serendipitous experiences. If someone comes to your mind and you think for a half second about reconnecting, please, without any reservation, dial that number or send the text. You may never know the power of letting someone know you are thinking of them. I look forward to sharing more ideas around a contributing factor of mental illness in my blog tomorrow. But for now, good night, and may you find rest in knowing you are more than enough.