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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Murder-Suicide: Rare, Sad and Difficult to Predict

My community recently experienced a murder-suicide where a father took the lives of his two young daughters. I did not know the family, although acquaintances of mine did. One of the girls is the same age as my son. This, unfortunately, enables my over-active imagination to picture his face as a victim of a similar crime. I feel deep empathy for the girls’  mother, whose life was immeasurably changed just a few days ago. It makes me feel like someone punched me in the stomach, and I can only imagine how she must feel.

I’ve also been trying to imagine what the father must have been feeling and thinking before he committed this act. This is far more difficult. According to sketchy media reports, he was despondent over a pending divorce and suffered from depression. But millions of people get divorced and millions of people are depressed. And yes, millions are suicidal. There must be something more — something that pushes someone over the edge to commit murder of the people they love before they take their own life.

I was reminded that as a teenager with a bipolar mother, a therapist once told me that someone who is suicidal can also be homicidal. I didn’t fully understand this information at the time, although now I realize that she was warning me that someone who was contemplating suicide may consider it an act of mercy to take family members with them to prevent their suffering. In other words, she was trying to tell me to be careful.

At the time, I thought the idea was ridiculous. But then, I also couldn’t have imagined back then that my mother would eventually succeed at taking her own life. The unthinkable does happen. I’ve always thought that one of my mother’s twisted thoughts prior to her suicide was that she felt we would be better off without her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. I can only guess that the perpetrator of a murder-suicide commits murder as a perverted sense of altruism.

I’ve looked up research on the Internet, but studies on murder-suicide are far and few between. Murder-suicides are rare, thankfully, and the circumstances do vary. The researchers agree on some basic points — the perpetrators are typically men and involve firearms. A history of mental illness, particularly depression is common, as is domestic violence and economic uncertainty.

But none of the studies I’ve seen have helped with understanding why it happens and how to help others who are in danger. Like other forms of mental illness, what causes someone to commit murder-suicide is mostly unknown and therefore difficult to predict.

I hope we can find a way to help. Because the unthinkable does happen.

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.

Help for Teenagers Affected by Suicide: Break Through the Static

My local paper ran a story about a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teenagers who are affected by suicide. This organization, called Break through the Static, defines its mission as creating “a caring community aimed at helping teenagers survive, heal and grow after losing a loved one to suicide. At Break Through the Static, teenagers will experience a safe and encouraging environment designed to strengthen their emotional and physical health through positive peer and adult relationships, and by joining with other teens to share and cultivate their unique talents and interests.”

Wow, I wish this group was around 20 years ago.

In fact, I find it a little disturbing that it took this long to develop such a group. It shows, yet again, the large hole in support services for people who are directly affected by mental illness.

If you are a teenager who is affected by suicide, or you know one, please check out Break through the Static. What an amazing resource for an under-served group of people. We are not alone.

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.

Play About Mental Illness Wins Pulitzer Prize

We’re pleased to report that Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This rock musical is about a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. (Wow, sounds familiar to us!) The musical apparently addresses such issues as grieving a loss, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and suburban life. Not living anywhere near Broadway, we have not seen it, but please leave a comment below with your personal review if you have.

It’s nice to see an artistic work about mental illness recognized with an award of this caliber. We hope it’s just one more step in breaking the silence about mental illness in our society. For more about the play, visit the Next to Normal website.