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. 

Prevent & Protect

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to increase awareness worldwide about suicide and prevention. Did you know:

– Every year, almost one million people die from suicide; a “global” mortality rate of 16 per 100,000, or one death every 40 seconds.
– In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 years in some countries, and the second leading cause of death in the 10-24 years age group; these figures do not include suicide attempts which are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicide.
– Suicide worldwide is estimated to represent 1.8% of the total global burden of disease in 1998, and 2.4% in countries with market and former socialist economies in 2020.
– Although traditionally suicide rates have been highest among the male elderly, rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of countries, in both developed and developing countries.
– Mental disorders (particularly depression and alcohol use disorders) are a major risk factor for suicide in Europe and North America; however, in Asian countries impulsiveness plays an important role. Suicide is complex with psychological, social, biological, cultural and environmental factors involved.

As you probably know, we believe Austin was suicidal and that we’ve focused search efforts on a search for remains. If you’ve read any of my posts, you probably also know I have some guilt over that, because the issues were clear but no one realized how real. So I don’t like reading about prevention a lot, I don’t like the what ifs. What I could have or should have done.

But it’s there, the need to educate all over the world, and to make changes that can help. Suicide costs us all- those left behind, our society…. the true cost is too high to know, too tough to measure.

Austin helping me at a fundraising event for ACS

In Austin’s case, he worked at keeping us from knowing, and he succeeded.  But there is still one person that I think could have been educated more, could have been more aware, could have had policies to prevent those last steps.  Austin arrived at a pawn shop by taxi, and attempted to buy a pistol.  He obviously knew nothing about guns, nor about buying one.  He didn’t know that he’d have to wait three days to buy a pistol.  He didn’t know he wouldn’t be able to get ammo there.  So, he bought a shotgun instead.  He left it there while he went down the road to buy ammo, and came back to finish the purchase.  Him buying it was perfectly legal.  But I don’t understand why there weren’t warning flags seen, that he was intending to hurt someone.  He couldn’t wait three days?  He needed ammo before he walked out with the gun?  He preferred a pistol, but a shotgun would do as long as he could get it today?

Depression is what caused Austin to do what he did.  But why it was so easy….   And what can we do to put barriers up when there are warning flags?  The cost is too high to not be having this conversation on a global scale.  The World Health Organization hopes to bring awareness and believes that governments need to develop policy frameworks for national suicide prevention strategies. At the local level, policy statements and research outcomes need to be translated into prevention programs and activities in communities.

Take a moment today and visit the American Association of Suicidology and see what you can do to help.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Goodbye My Friend

Flying over a city is such a different perspective than what we see from the street. From a few thousand feet, it’s difficult to distinguish between types of buildings, with homes and offices looking the same. Vehicles look the same, with no recognizable difference between passenger cars and semi trucks.

Then as you descend, things start to come into focus, and you begin to realize that there are neighborhoods and parks, shops and offices, looking much like in any other place you might land. And for a while the cars look like ants and no more movement can be seen.

Then it finally comes into focus, now seeing life buzzing all around, with people coming and going in their lives all around you. The homes no longer look all the same, and the personality of the area is perceived.

But you still don’t see, even when on the ground, what is happening behind the doors. A drive through the neighborhood gives you some clues, but until you spend time in the home or in the business you still don’t know the intricacies of the lives lived there. Even then, what we know is often what people want us to.

I wrote the first portion of this blog post while high above, when my access to the outside world was cut off and I only had my thoughts for company. I had no idea that when I landed, I’d learn that a friend was gone. I had been thinking just minutes before that I’m thankful we don’t know what’s around the corner, because we might not be able to face it. My timing was ironic.

Diane was a friend who came into my life when I truly needed a friend. We’d just moved home to Jacksonville, had a newborn and a lot of uncertainty. Though it was home, we didn’t have an abundance of friends and little to connect us. We visited a church, felt welcomed and comfortable and after a few visits learned of a new moms group. It was just what I needed, and though I was nervous about going, went and found a small group of women who I would form lasting friendships with. Diane was the reason for the group, with her passion for connecting people.

As I got to know her, and then eventually her family, it was like flying in lower, starting to see more details and until we really saw behind the doors of each others homes and lives. When you get close to the ground, and close to people, you see that it’s not as perfect and shiny as is looked from farther away. But you also see character and interest and details that make you love it or them more than you could have from above.

Diane had a sweet spirit and loving heart that was evident from far away. The closer you got, the more you could see it. She also had pain and torment from an illness that you didn’t see from above at first, but over time her friends saw more clearly. She closed the doors, kept the windows drawn and mostly kept us out, as much as we tried to get in. And we tried. I’ve missed her for years, but prayed that one day she would throw the doors open and let people help.

In the end, her illness was too strong for her to see the promise of tomorrow. She loved her son more than life itself. She loved her husband through it all. But the pain was too much and she chose to end the pain.

I will always remember my friend for her sweet spirit, her smile and laugh, her love of people, and for bringing me together with people that are now true family.

But I will also remember that we never know what the next moments hold and we never know what we’ll find as we get lower and closer to people. If we’re blessed, we find people like Diane who only prove even truer when we get close.

I love you and miss you my friend.



– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friends In the Woods

Growing up, we lived on a few acres at the end of a dirt road, bordered on two sides with woods.  Austin and I made fast and forever friends with the kids who shared another side and had even more property..  We spent countless hours exploring those woods, always in a pack and always finding something to get into.  They really weren’t that dense or deep, but we had such a sense of independence in being able to roam.

Years later, Michael and I bought our first house in a small neighborhood not too far from where I grew up.  Just about a week before Austin disappeared, he found himself depressed and unable to settle down in the house for the night, needing some space and time to wander.  He cut through a neighbor’s yard and out into the woods, wandering much of the night, even though the pain in his knees grew with each step.  I had been alerted to his mental state by a friend, and I worried but had no idea what was coming.  When asked about what was going on after finally coming in, he insisted he was okay and had just needed some time.  A few days later, he again insisted the same to my mom when she came to visit, and after hours of conversation with him, she also didn’t know how serious it was or what was to come.

The morning after we realized Austin was missing and the report had been filed, those woods were walked and searched by several people who had no formal training, but were driven to find him.  I’ll never forget my Dad searching ceaselessly, and worrying that he couldn’t withstand much more of the heat and terrain with his breathing difficulties.  But he wouldn’t stop until he felt he had covered it all.  I was so worried about him holding up for what might take days or weeks.  I had no idea it would be years.

There were more woods in that area than I ever could have imagined.  We had no idea what needed to be covered, so we traversed it all the best we could.  We called in volunteers and friends, had family drive hours to help (time after time) and kept at it.  But we couldn’t believe how many square miles of woods were around us, the aerial maps astounded us.  What was also hard to believe were the numbers of people living in them.  There were whole families, young kids to elderly people, all making their home right there.  They were off the beaten path, and out of the public eye, so easily overlooked or forgotten.  They were mostly kind, mostly offering hope that he would be found.

The sheer amount of woods and the people living there made such an impression on everyone involved.  How could we live right there all along and not really see what was there?  

But what I’ll never forget about those early days, more than anything else, were the friends in the woods.  Each of us had friends involved, and I’ll forever be grateful to them all.  But the ones that stand out to me the most are the friends who never knew Austin, yet quietly and without being asked went into the woods.  I am rarely caught without words.  However, I’ll always remember when I heard about a group of five ladies who ventured into the woods together to help.  They weren’t asked.  They didn’t want to be thanked.  They faced fears of spiders and snakes, got dirty and scratched.  They gave me hope.  Several months later, another friend casually mentioned that he felt sure Austin wasn’t in a specific area because he had been searching there.  I looked down as he spoke and realized that his arms were covered in scratches that were quite bad.  He had not been asked, and didn’t want to be thanked.  He gave me hope.  I had no words to thank any of them then, and barely do today.

As a kid, the woods were magical but as an adult they’ve become a place of learning.  Learning about Austin’s last days, learning about seeing what’s around us, and most importantly about how real friends will go anywhere, even in the woods.