Ten years… Ten years since I sat at the memorial of a young man lost from my husband’s battalion. Ten years since I was pregnant with our first and vowed to have him remember that young man. I didn’t know that we’d face so much loss in the next ten years that it would become even more poignant. I didn’t know that between years Nine and Ten, a friend would lose her children’s dad to PTSD and I’d count one more among those we remember.
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.