Stop the Stigma

Usually when someone passes away, there is an illness that we say they died from.  But in reality, the illness causes a host of problems, and that often leads to the death, not the original illness  Often, the body can simply fight no longer, and basic functions cease.  But we understand that cancer, or heart disease, or whatever the illness was, led to their death.  We don’t dwell on what the final step was.  We don’t see headlines that mention that someone died from fluid on the lungs, we see that they died from Cancer.  Because that was truly what caused their death.

But for those suffering from depression, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, etc., when the illness becomes so severe that the person dies, the headlines say that they committed suicide.  

Committed.  Which truly simply means “to do, perform, or perpetrate” but is used in this way almost exclusively for crimes.  The person gone did perform that act, but it is no crime.  It is painful for those left behind, but no crime was committed. 

If we’re to really understand mental illness, we’ll understand that as the cause of death.  Suicide was only the last step in an illness that progressed past the point of the help available.   Over 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death, the most common being depression.  

Since we believe that my brother took his life and died from depression, I’ve been asked many times if I’m angry with him.  While I know that can be a common feeling of those left behind, I think it would be less so if we could remove the stigma and help others understand the truth.  This wasn’t about me.  This wasn’t about him not loving our family enough.  This was about ending the pain.  In the religious world, the stigma has been especially strong, with a long history of teaching by many churches that hell was the punishment for suicide.  Thankfully, many churches have stopped teaching that, as they have come to better understand mental illness.  But many people still believe it.  Some have even said it to me.  So if you’re wondering, no.  I don’t think he was selfish, I think he was ill.  I’m angry that he was 26 years old and working full time and had no health care available because he worked for a very small business and made too little to afford private insurance but too much for subsidized care.  I’ve been angry at times by insensitive comments by those who think I should be angry.  I’m upset with myself for not recognizing the severity of the illness.  I’m saddened by it all.  But I’ve really never been angry with him. 

Just a few days ago, Rick Warren, minister and author of ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, lost his son to depression.   He appears to have been a loving and spiritual young man, who had an illness so severe, that no treatment or doctors had been able to prevent his death.  Like any parents with a sick child, his had sought help for him far and wide.  The best medicine, doctors, therapists and ministers were within their reach.  But healing was not.  Rick and Kay obviously understood that, and I’m thankful that through their pain, the stigma may be lifted and illness better understood by some.   

It is so difficult to add to the pain of loss with a shame that should never be there.  We need to start looking at suicide for what it really is- a final step of a terrible disease.  And when we can take the shame away from mental illness, more may be able to seek and receive treatment that saves them from that step, and instead brings them healing.

Praying today for those who have lost a loved one to mental illness, that they find comfort instead of scorn and hope and healing instead of shame. 

Saying Goodbye

We aren’t very good at saying goodbye, or even knowing when it’s time to.  Our family is facing that right now with my Grandmother, and at this very moment critical decisions are being made.  Just a few nights ago she had two strokes, and the night after a seizure.  She is responsive and has made it very clear, both through a living will years ago, and comments in the past few days, that she wants to be allowed to die naturally.

But right now she can breathe on her own, pump blood on her own, but is having difficulty swallowing.  Due to that, the doctors wanted to place a feeding tube to give nutrition and medication, and though she didn’t want to, agreed to it with the promise that it wouldn’t stay long.  After just a few hours, she pulled it out on her own and doesn’t want it back in.  But her children, my mom and her siblings, are having a hard time agreeing to that.  After all, she could regain all needed functions with therapy, or at least have a good shot at it.

But she is exhausted and ready.  Her wishes must be honored.  I can’t help but think that if she could see past the exhaustion and depression that comes with a seizure, she’d want to live more life.  Austin was exhausted, but we didn’t get to take part in the decision for him.  We didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.  We wouldn’t have said goodbye though, we would have stopped him.  I hope my mom and my aunts and uncles and other family gathered around her can find a way to say goodbye when the choice has been made.

Goodbye’s are awful, but I’ve learned that they’re better than never getting a goodbye.