September 13, 2019

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Stop the Stigma

September 13, 2019

 

It had already been a rough day. I spent the morning dealing with demanding litigation and insurance carriers, worried about my cocker spaniel and whether he had liver cancer, and then a text arrived from my husband. He wanted to make sure I had seen the news on Facebook regarding a friend who had passed away. Though I was in shock, I immediately started rationalizing the news. My friend had been ill, and her health issues were significant enough that it was not out of the realm of reason that she may succumb to such. So, I dropped everything and grabbed my cell phone. I immediately went to Facebook and there was...

 

Not only had my friend passed away but she had died by suicide.  

 

I sat at my desk, motionless, and just stared out the window. Tears started flowing down my cheeks. This person was truly a ray of sunshine, loved fiercely, and had the biggest heart of gold. This was unbelievable.  

 

I managed to get through the remainder of my day, and I had a hair appointment that evening. I hurriedly traveled to the hairdresser and sat down in the chair. The typical banter began, and I was asked how my day was going. Instead of my typical “it was great” or “it was fine” responses, I just blurted it out. My day was horrible. I had a friend die by suicide and I am devastated.  

 

Instead of offering any words of comfort (whether genuine or not), I was met with the following reply: “I just don’t understand people that do that. That is so selfish. What about the people she left behind?” I was stunned. I literally had nothing to say. While I respect the right of others to have different opinions or perspectives than me, maybe that was not the “right” time to express those views. So, I gathered my thoughts and changed the subject. Then we went from my attempt to have meaningful conversation to discussing the merits of certain “hotel amenities.” I was done talking about suicide.

 

But as the days passed, I was not done. It hit me. Has anything really changed about how society views suicide? In reflecting on the exchange I had with my hairdresser, I immediately was taken back to 1996 when a law school classmate died by suicide. That was the first direct experience I had with it and I vividly recall the myriad of opinions that were expressed then. While some people were empathetic, most were not.  

 

Mental illness carried a strong stigma 23 years ago.There was no social media filled with memes about how you should feel, countless hotlines, or incessant advertisements for the newest and greatest mood and behavior-altering medications. Instead, my classmates and I were conditioned to “dig deep” and “keep on pressing on.” That was how we were raised and that is how we were taught to deal with most problems, including mental illness. Even though my classmates were saddened over the events, most questioned why this young man would be so selfish, and why he didn’t realize the pain his death would inflict on others. He seemed to have a great life and a bright future ahead of him. So why would he do something like this?  

 

No one will ever know the true reason my classmate chose to end his life, just as no one will ever truly know why my friend ended her life. Sadly, those are answers they took with them when they drifted from us.  

 

What I do know is that there is no room to judge people who make these decisions. We never know what struggles other people go through. Life can hurt and life often can just suck. Rather than pass judgment on those who may opt for a solution we may not agree with, why don’t we try to become more open to helping others whenever we can? Why don’t we try to counter the hateful rhetoric that surrounds mental illness by lifting up as many people as we can?

 

Be mindful when you speak.

 

You never know when your words could be the difference between life and death.

 

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