Thoughts on Our Culture’s Treatment of Suicide and Mental Illness

Sometimes other people say it best. Today, a local politician talks candidly about his experience at a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a small snapshot:

We are still a long way from a fool-proof medical treatment for depression, but we are even farther away from having the social and cultural understanding necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the treatments we have. For all the breakthroughs we’ve made in the field of mental health, too many of us still tend to believe that if a problem is in your head, it isn’t real.

Yet even the best treatment sometimes fails, and you wind up in a room filled with people each remembering the phone call they meant to make, the e-mail they were going to answer or the invitation they kept planning to extend. It’s unrealistic to believe any of that would have changed the outcome, but it is human to think so and may even spur us to be more thoughtful and attentive to others, at least for a time, and that’s something.

But when those left behind assume too great a burden of guilt, it compounds the suffering and distorts the reality of this terrible illness. By thinking we could have somehow deflected the fatal act, we are granting it a degree of consciousness and deliberation at variance with reality and empowering it with the further capacity to unfairly continue inflicting pain and injury on others. After all, no one blames the empty chambers in a pistol for not coming up in a fatal game of Russian Roulette.

Click here for the full story.

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Hoarders, The Television Show. Helpful or Hurtful?

Okay, well, I’m not exactly up on the latest in popular culture. So while Hoarders is nothing new to many of you out there,  it was new to me. I caught a couple of episodes this week for the first time almost by accident while I was working on the computer with the TV on in the background.

The next thing I knew, nearly two hours had passed. Another Hoarders episode was coming on, and I WANTED TO WATCH. It took real strength to turn off the TV and go to bed, which is what I really needed to do.

My first instinct, honestly, was repulsion. Not at the people depicted on TV or their situation, but repulsion that someone out there thought this would be entertaining. And, to be truthful, repulsion at the level of my own interest in the show.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a reality TV watcher. I’ve always thought reality TV simply elevates the old circus freak show to a broader audience. I know people love it  — from Survivor to Jon & Kate to the Bachelor. Eh. Just not for me.

I know hoarders, and I had one in my family. I had a very difficult time letting go of my mother’s belongings after she died, and I can empathize with those people who react with anger and frustration when people start throwing their things out, no matter how much they resemble trash. I was frustrated and saddened that these people and their mental illnesses would be subjected to this level of public humiliation. I was annoyed that the deeper issues behind hoarding weren’t really explored, and I felt like the hard parts were being swept under the rug. Where was the slow, probably agonizing therapy that I knew must occur for these people to actually get help and get better?

And then, I found this lovely site called the Children of Hoarders. And I watched the video of that lovely man, Jason, telling his story about living with a mother who was a hoarder. And I wanted to cry and scream and hug him at the same time. And I realized that, while I still think the show is simplifying a very complicated problem, it is doing something that I admire. It’s bringing attention to mental illness. It’s giving people hope. It’s telling them they are not alone. It’s telling them they can find help. It is supporting the families of the mentally ill — people who need far more support than they typically receive.

So maybe, just maybe, a television show can help hoarders move past the stigma of their illnesses and take the steps to rebuild their lives. I still haven’t made up my mind about the show. Watch this space as I continue to struggle with the clash of mass media and the depiction of mental illness.

U.S. Army Responds to Suicide Risks

I was fascinated to read this AP story about the U.S. Army’s attempts to address suicide among their ranks. What a brave man Army Spc. Joseph Sanders is for stepping forward and becoming the face of this campaign. I found his story to be inspiring, and at the same time, I suspect it is more prevelant than he knew at the time.

I’ve never served in the military, but I grew up next door to a military base. My husband’s family has a long history of military service, and I have some idea of the type of environment and culture that comes with the military life. I can’t imagine a more difficult combination of elements that could spark mental illness while at the same time limiting a person’s ability to seek help. I found it heartening that the U.S. Army is at least giving it a try.

The pressure in the military to “be strong” is part of the very culture of the institution. It is not limited to any one branch of service, one country or even one era of human history. For the U.S. Army to change the message and try to address the problem is quite the “about face.” (Pun intended. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

This story hits home for me in a very personal way, because I know a military vet who is currently suffering from depression. He lives the “be strong” motto through and through. In his case, just like many others, it is preventing him from seeking treatment for his illness. For him, I want this campaign to be just the tip of the iceberg. I want him to feel like it’s okay to ask for help. I want him to know that asking for help doesn’t make him weak. In fact, it’s the opposite — it requires great strength and courage to seek it.

I’m pleased the Army is making an effort to provide more mental health services, and I hope they dedicate the resources necessary to make it work. Keep up the good work, soldiers. And to Army Spc. Joseph Sanders, I salute you.

Breaking the Cycle of a Mentally Ill Parent

My sister and I spent a good part of last evening talking about our parents and our childhood. This is not particularly unusual when we get together. She has a better memory than I do, and yesterday she told me a few new stories that I didn’t remember. Even after 20 years of adulthood, she can still surprise me sometimes with new details.

I love these long, introspective conversations where we dissect small events and hypothesize on everyone’s thought process at the time. We are both parents now, so the actions of our parents are interesting to us in new ways. And, probably surprising to most people, it’s not our mother’s death that is the hot topic of conversation. Instead, it is her actions as a mother of small children that we find more interesting, probably because of the number of small children in our lives today.

It feels grossly unfair that our mother is not here to share in this conversation. At the same time, I wonder if my sister and I would be having these conversations if she were alive today. There is a lingering possibility that my sister and I would not be as close as we are today if our mother was alive; that our close bond was forged in tragedy alone. And our mother’s very presence may eclipse these conversations because she would be here to answer the now unanswerable questions.

I realized during this conversation that, even 20 years later, I still harbor some resentment and anger towards my mother. Not from her illness and her death, which were terrible and tragic, but from the very beginnings of our relationship as an unplanned pregnancy and spirited child. This animosity is completely missing in my sister, whose birth and personality meshed better with our mother’s plan for her life. And I realized that my mother’s mental illness, while a significant factor in my childhood, is not the only issue.

I tell you this because a lot of people find this blog by searching for information about the effects of mental illness on children. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there isn’t much information out there. The truth is that my mother’s illness is only one factor of our relationship that still resonates. Her actions as a young mother in an isolated military community with a daughter whom she didn’t plan on are far more relevant in my life today.

Our parents’ actions affect our lives. There’s no doubt about that. But the children of the mentally ill have choices too. I’m no longer a child, and I don’t blame my mother’s actions for any problems that I have in my life. I do try to learn from them, and with effort, avoid repeating the worst of them. I’m responsible for myself now.

That responsibility means I need to deal with that anger towards my mother that lingers more than 38 years later. I have resources. It’s time to use them again. Because that anger may be playing out in subtle ways in my relationships with my own children. I don’t have any control over my mother’s actions, but I have control over my own. Understanding the difference is one of the key elements to recovery. You can’t choose your parents. But you can choose how you parent your own children. Breaking the cycle is hard. But it’s worth it. I’m worth it. And my kids are worth it too.

Telling Others About A Family Member Who Has Committed Suicide

I’ve struggled with one question for 20 years: “How do I tell my new friend that my mother committed suicide?”

It always comes up eventually, so I have to prepare myself. Not because I’m ashamed of my mother. I’ve come to terms with the circumstances of her death and accepted it as a part of my history.

But when it comes to dealing with other people? I wonder what their reactions will be. Will my new friend still want to be friends or will I be stigmatized because my mother was mentally ill? Will she be able to see me, not my mother’s death?

And now that I have “mommy” friends, will they feel like they need to protect their children from someone with mental illness in her family? After all, most people are afraid of mental illness, and most people calm their fear through avoidance. It makes them feel like they can control the situation.

As my sister mentioned in an earlier post, we grew up in a small town, a small pond where our mother was a fairly big fish. For years afterward people saw not me as an individual, but as my mother’s daughter. Even today I sometimes find that my relatives look at me and see a reflection of their own pain of losing my mother. I’ve learned how to diffuse those situations with charity and – I hope – a bit of grace.

However, when it comes to telling someone about my mother for the first time, I still have to brace myself for their reaction. I’m so used to the surprised and shocked expressions that I can’t just say, “She committed suicide.” I feel like I have to break it to them gently, as if their feelings are more important. I have to make a face or sigh; I am compelled to prepare the other person for what I’m about to say.

Part of me thinks, why should I worry about making the other person comfortable? But I guess that it’s a defense mechanism that makes me more comfortable. I can react in a preemptive way so that they know it’s a sensitive and important subject. I also can avoid pretending to be stoic, which can also close off any further discussion.

Most importantly, if I tell the truth, I’m bringing light to a subject that most people want or feel they need to hide.

Secrecy is not an option for me. I hope to be an example of openness and the beauty of survival, and I hope to inspire others to do the same.