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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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.

Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holidays are upon us. I was pleased to find in my research that the rumors of increased suicide attempts during the holiday period has been proven inaccurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true — with more people reporting improvements in mental health, possibly because we typically interact more with other people during this season than during the rest of the year.

But what if, due to no fault of your own, the holidays reflect more about what you’ve lost than what you have?

That was my feeling about the holiday season for many, many years. Memories of happier times did not comfort me. I went through the motions, but felt like Christmas — the major holiday of my childhood — was simply another day where the thing I wanted most (my mother) was missing.

Not only was the thing I wanted unobtainable, but gifts in general felt like a poor substitute. Carols? Cookies? Reindeer? Nah. Didn’t do a thing for me. I was looking for something that could not be found in a store or under a tree or even in a church.  Like the first part of the song, “Where Are You Christmas?”, I had changed, but the holidays were a chain to my past.

This is my 21st Christmas without my mother. That’s a lot of crappy holidays. Too many. But I’m please to report some improvements over the past few years. The major reason is the birth of my own children, who are enchanted by the magical side of Christmas. They believe in Santa, and I love watching their excitement. It has brought a new joy into the season. Hang around with young children during the holidays. It’s much more fun.

I’ve also focused less on myself and more on others.  Giving to others is one relatively simple way to find the spirit of the holidays when it feels like it’s missing. I make donations during this time of year. They are small, but I make sure they count. I give to people and charities doing work I believe in. I donate time to organizations that make a difference. In helping others, I help myself reconnect with what is truly important in our lives. And in this economy, the need is greater than ever.

I also have given myself permission to give up parts of Christmas that feel more burdersome than celebretory. I made three batches of simple cookies instead of 10 batches of those tasty, but very complicated, recipes handed down by my grandmothers. Our dinner is also simplified — only the dishes we truly enjoy will find it to our table this year. No homemade gifts from me either — great idea, but I don’t enjoy crafting enough to make that my priority. I still do Christmas cards because I enjoy receiving them, but the letter inside is printed from a computer instead of handwritten (my preference).

Another idea that I like is simply skipping the holidays. Leave the decorations in the attic, find someone to pick up your mail, get a cheap flight and hotel on the Internet, and then take off for someplace tropical. If the holidays are painful, I think doing something radically different is an okay way to cope with the situation. I confess that I have not put this option into action, but I reserve the right to in future years.

My own experience has led me to believe that time does help.  Those 20 years of cruddy Christmases are not a life-long sentence. Each year is gets a little easier as I find ways to make the holiday season reflect what I feel is important. It’s a journey, not a destination.

Susan Klebold Speaks, Part III

There is one sentence in the O Magazine article by Susan Klebold that resonants with me like no other. When discussing her feelings as she learned more about her son’s terrible actions on that fateful day at Columbine, she writes: “I concluded that he must not have loved me, because love would have prevented him from doing what he did.”

This reaction is natural after experiencing a tragedy that was caused by a loved one’s own hands. It doesn’t require a event as devastating as Columbine to feel the shock and horror associated with suicide or murder-suicide. I also felt the same way after my mother committed suicide in my childhood home — she must not have loved me, or she never would have done that. This feeling was reinforced by the careless words of a therapist in later years, in which she expressed her shock that my mother would kill herself in our home — unusual, she said, because women are usually careful to commit suicide in an area where a family member is unlikely to be the first to find the body.

I, of course, had always wondered what it would have been like if I or my younger sister had opened the door to the garage that morning. Instead my father is the one who has to live with the image of my mother hanging from the rafters of our garage. We escaped that pain, but not the clear message that our love was not enough to keep my mother alive.

Yet more than 20 years have passed since that day, and new levels of understanding have emerged. Don’t get me wrong — like Susan Klebold, “I will never know why.” But I understand the destruction caused by mental illness a little better now than I did at 17, and my mother’s actions now prove to me how ill she really was. I also understand, as Susan writes in her article, that “we should also remember that even if someone is exhibiting signs of suicide risk, it may not always be possible to prevent tragedy.” Each person’s capacity for free will overrules good intentions from others. You should try to help (and I hope you do), but you may not succeed.

I suspect if Susan could talk to Dylan, he would tell her that he did love her, and that he always loved her. I think love has very little to do with his final actions. His illness was so far advanced at that point, love could not have saved him. That concept is difficult for other people to grasp. Instead they search for simple reasons to explain the unexplainable. Mental illness is not easily rationalized because, by its nature, it is irrational.

Those of us who are left behind are not given answers that will satisfy us. There is not just one event, nor is there just one action that caused the Columbine tragedy; and there is no simple solution to preventing suicide or murder-suicide. That’s a very uncomfortable thought for most people. We much prefer the illusion that we have some control.

It is much better, I think, to give up this notion of simple explanations and work towards finding the underlying causes that lie much deeper than our “fix-it-quick” society allows. Investing in finding the root causes of mental illness is something we’ve waited far too long to do. If we want to learn something from Columbine and the other, much smaller, tragedies that occur on a daily basis, let it be that maybe our health care system is missing chances to help people in complicated situations by prescribing simple solutions (i.e., a bottle of pills).

Like Susan, I don’t have the answer. I wish, after 20 years, that I did. I’d like to say that I appreciate Susan Klebold’s courage in publishing part of her story. I believe she speaks the truth, and I empathize with her pain, as well as the pain of all of those who suffered from the actions of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. There are no simple lessons that we can take from these events, but by sharing her story, Susan has done what we all should to help others in similar situations. Silence is the enemy. Talk about it. You are not alone.