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. 

Another Year, Another Prayer

The passing of time is bittersweet, with the joy of watching my children grow, but realizing that each day they’re closer to being all grown.  With each passing year I strengthen relationships that have weathered storms, but also realize that more years have passed without connecting with old cherished friends.  We welcome new life, but also realize that the days are dwindling for others we love.

That bittersweet realization came especially true last week as I visited my ailing grandmother, likely seeing her for the last time.  Our family had some time to explore the area, playing in parks I played in as a young child, and seeing family that I love and rarely see.  Visiting those roots, and the passing of another year also makes me think of Austin with bittersweet memories.  His photos are in that home, from him as a baby to the most recent ones we have, and I was reminded that there are people who remember and love him.  That part was sweet, as the only people who seem to remember him are family, and some days feel as the rest of the world doesn’t know he lived.  But another year has passed with no word, no answers, no closer it seems.

This was our fifth Christmas without him, and in some ways it is easier and in some ways harder than the first.  I was thinking on the families going through their first, and likely not sure how they’ll ever get through another if they must.  I remember being them, meeting a family who had been searching for 7 years, and thinking that we couldn’t do that.  But we’re close, and if the years continue on, so will we. But I also know that family we met found answers, as I hope we will. 

But through all of those thoughts, both of loss and of how much we have, I tried to think of how to start the new year.  Last year I decided to begin writing, decided to put my heart on ‘paper’ and share with anyone who would read it.  That was a huge leap for me, as I prefer to share my thoughts, but not really my feelings.  And it has been good, better than I imagined actually.

I heard Rick Warren speak yesterday (via video).  He is the author of ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ which is the best selling book of all time worldwide, other than the bible.  Wow.  To have that kind of influence and to be used by God in such a way!  He said that the purpose of influence is to speak for those who have no influence.  I was reminded yet again that while my influence is small, I can use it to speak for those who have no influence- those who are hurting, those without hope, or those with it who need someone to help.

While I listened, and wondered how I could do that more, he went on to say that this year we should look at what we have and throw it down to God.  Much like Moses gave his shepard staff to God, and God used it to lead His people across the Red Sea, we can look at what we have in our hands and though we may have no idea how God can or will use it, if we give it to Him, He will. 

So this year, I’d like to share my story with more, throwing down the small gift I have to offer.  I pray that this year, God uses my heart and story even more than last year, and that I have the courage to look for opportunities to share it.  My fears in asking for opportunities to share is something that I can’t overcome alone, but can with Him.  So there it is, my prayer for the New Year.

I pray that this year, we all use the influence we have to speak for those who have no influence.  That whatever usually gets in our way, from fear to complacency, be pushed aside.  That we look at what we already have in our hand and throw it down for God to use.  You and I will likely never have the influence of Rick Warren, but we can be used here and now.

Happy New Year!