We sit around in a semi-circle and drink our coffee or dip our tea bags, and break our cookies or pull our pastry into ever smaller pieces. Every once in awhile a piece finds its way into one of our mouths. All of us are there for the same reason: to talk, to share, and to know -- most of all -- that in all this madness, we are not alone. I go almost every month as is my right as a proud graduate of a family support and training class taught here in Syracuse. And as a graduate of this twelve week class teaching people how to cope with their loved one’s serious mental illness, I am now part of a community of family members who live with, on a daily basis, the absurdity and the heartbreak of mental illness.
Tonight it is a relatively small group. Perhaps ten of us in all; and we begin, one by one, to share with the group our loved one’s newest tragedies or triumphs. And it’s the usual fare of worry and frustration and disappointment, mixed with tiny slices of hope and pride and acceptance.
Back in the corner sits a woman who I do not know. She sits alone and listens and writes and every once-in-awhile slips the sweet offerings of a cookie between her lips. We are making a somewhat organized trip around the table and when it appears to be her turn to talk, Sheila, our moderator, asked, “So, how’s your husband?” Her husband has bipolar disorder. This woman looks up from the broken pieces of her cookie and says as clear as day, “He’s doing pretty good, but he’s the least of my problems.” We wait a beat then Sheila asked, “And your brother, the one with Huntington’s disease, how is he doing?” “Well, he’s having some difficulty with his breathing and muscle control, but he’s the least of my problems.” We wait a beat then Sheila asks kindly, “Well, then, what is your problem?” There’s the slightest shift of this woman’s face, a movement of her hands towards her mouth and then she slaps us with her pain. “It’s my son. He killed himself. Yesterday.” And we are all punched neatly in the gut, our collective gasps filling the room, mixing with her sorrow; and we are all reminded how it could easily be any one of us saying these words. He hung himself. In the basement. He was twenty years old.
Suicide. Leaving behind a storm surge of devastation. The eighth leading cause of death in the US. The third leading cause of death between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four years of age. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that the vast majority of people (90%) who commit suicide have a mental illness, substance abuse disorder or both. Treatable disorders. Approximately twenty-five percent of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide. Ten percent succeed. Strong words, powerful numbers, but what does any of it mean? And how do we weaken the words, decrease the numbers?
The key words: treatable disorders. Depression. Bipolar disorder. Substance abuse. Schizophrenia. Schizoaffective disorder. All treatable.
Many individuals struggling with these disorders do not seek help due a plethora of reasons: stigma, discrimination, ignorance, lack of insurance coverage, lack of insight, embarrassment, fear . . .
If you find yourself wondering, “Is he suicidal? Would he ever take his life?” then the answer is, most likely, yes. Ask him. Then act. Seek help. Bring mental illness out into the open. Talk. Educate. Advocate.
As the meeting breaks up, I find myself out in the hallway alone with the mother of this dead boy. I hug her and tell her, “Good luck.” I hope the hug will makeup for the stupidity of my words. Good luck? And then she tells me of her child’s last act of kindness before he chose to take his own life. He’d heard a small noise in the shed outback. He carefully searched, removing things slowly, until finally he unearthed three tiny kittens. The mother cat was found dead by the road. He took these tiny creatures to the zoo and they were cared for and they lived. And I picture these three young cats living their lives as we should all live our lives -- squinting their eyes to the pleasure of the day and embracing each and every moment as a gift.
For more information:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Family to Family: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Family-to-Family&lstid=605