The official kickoff of Mental Illness Awareness Week was Monday. That morning, I came across this picture of strangers clinging tenaciously to a man who was trying to throw himself off a bridge. By Monday evening, a friend we care for deeply had shared that his struggle with Bipolar Disorder was becoming unbearable, and he was overwhelmed with thoughts of suicide. Just a few hours later that night, my family was reeling from the news that someone else we cared for died by suicide earlier in the day.
Each year, millions of Americans struggle under the burden of a mental health condition. To honor the widespread impact of both those who suffer personally, and those who are indirectly affected by mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sponsors Mental Illness Awareness Week. Their goal? To spread awareness about the importance of mental health and to speak out against stigma around mental illness.
One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone. Family members, friends, and colleagues are left wondering – “How could I not know? How could I not have seen it? What could I have done differently?”
Here’s the thing about depression and suicide – well, about mental illness in general… We don’t talk. We feel alone. We feel like no one can understand, or like we might be a burden to someone else if we share our pain. We feel ashamed or embarrassed. We feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own. That, my friends, is stigma.
A new TV series aired last week – A Million Little Things. The pilot episode begins with someone who died by suicide. The friends, in complete disbelief, are trying to make sense of why someone who seems (at least on the outside) to have it all together would take his own life. Then someone says:
“Maybe he just lost sight of the horizon? I was watching this documentary on JFK Junior. You remember when his plane went down?… Kennedy was a pilot and he was flying at night and the clouds came in. His instruments were telling him which way was up but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him and he couldn’t see it. And he lost site of the horizon and nose-dived. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. He couldn’t pull up… That’s depression.”
At times we all lose our way. This life hits hard. It holds no punches. We all stumble and fall – repeatedly. And sometimes the weight of our suffering seems incredibly heavy and unjust.
But if we all struggle, why are some of us choosing to go at it alone?
Kevin Hines, the most well-known survivor of a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge has shared that he was waiting for just one person to reach out and say something to him. That if just one person had stopped to ask if he was alright, he would not have jumped. No one reached out to him, and in exchange, he didn’t reach out to anyone either.
The gut-wrenching part? As soon as Kevin Hines jumped he realized it was a mistake. Incredibly, he survived and now he spends his life sharing his story. But he’s not alone. There are many survivors who have shared their story and report regretting their decision as soon as they started. They are the lucky ones. They got to “pull up” in time.
So I want to say something to you. To my friends, colleagues, family, clients, and the strangers I have yet to meet. This is something I wish I could say to our family member who suffered quietly, alone, before taking his precious life. Something I have shared and will continue to share with a friend who fights the good fight and struggles under the weight of his depression. Hold on. Don’t quit. I promise, this too shall pass.
And I want to beg you to talk about it. Tell someone. Take a deep breath and muster up just a tiny bit of courage and strength and resilience, and say “I am in pain. I can’t see the horizon any longer. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on. Please help me before I make a decision I might regret.”
Be vulnerable. Be brave. In this world of heartbreak there are good people who would give their last breath to save just one soul. I see it every day buried under the mudslinging and narcissism and vanity. All you have to do is reach out. It does get better. Nothing – including pain – lasts forever. There are people who can catch you. There are people who will smile under the shared weight of your pain. And someday, when you’re feeling stronger, you can share in their weight too.
All you have to do is reach out.
You don’t have to feel alone. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you’re thinking about suicide.