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.

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