By Angela Reinhardt
I know what it’s like to feel depressed. I know what it’s like to feel insecure and anxious. They’re unwanted, nasty characters that show up sometimes, like I imagine they do for most people. When I feel blue, I remind myself I’m caught up in irrational emotions that always pass – and they always do.
But last week it became clear that my own experiences with depression are mere slivers of a dark and expansive world for others. When it comes down to it, what I’m feeling is basic human turmoil that can be treated with meditation and prayer, exercise, and sunshine. But for people like my sister’s friend who took her own life last Monday, the depression, despondency and feelings of worthlessness go so much deeper than I’ve known. For some people, these feelings are always there, informing every moment.
I guess like a lot of things in this life we don’t empathize until something hits close to home. I’ve never even met my sister’s friend, but I saw my sister grieve for the first time and saw her feel confused and guilty. I was haunted by the circumstances that led to this tragic outcome. I never get personal on Facebook, but after I realized how desensitized to suicide I had become, I wrote a post to encourage myself and other people to pay more attention and to reach out, even though I realize we might not be able to change the outcome.
Over the next day or so I received messages from a heartbreaking number of people who had a child, a parent or a friend take their life. I got messages from people who know a person struggling with this “civil war” of the mind, as one eulogist calls it, and messages from others struggling on their own. Before last week I had no idea how pervasive suicide is – right now it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 15-35, the same age group as my sister’s friend. The suicide rate has risen by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, when 42,773 people decided life wasn’t worth living anymore. That number doesn’t even include the 469,096 who were treated for self-inflicted injuries in the same year.
While I hadn’t consciously considered it, I think I reserved suicide for celebrities, junkies and a handful of rare, exceptionally depressed people. How did I not realize this is a borderline epidemic? I didn’t know because I wasn’t paying attention, and because suicide is stigmatized, just like the mental health illnesses that often lead to it, so the problem is shoved in a dark corner, hidden.
Years ago I was covering a story on a fire station’s new heat vision goggles. Through the goggles my handprint lingered on things I touched because I could see the heat of my hand, which was naked to the human eye. Mental illness is like heat and other invisible energies - it’s there influencing all kinds of things, but most of the time we don’t see it.
It’s unfortunate that because of stigma and views on ethics of death, people who need help don’t seek it, and those who follow through are too often called selfish or weak or sinners, judged for taking the easy way out or for playing God. In reality, most people are scared of dying and go to great lengths to avoid it. We can see that in medicine as life extension. Stints. Chemo. Why do we judge so hard?
I know this isn’t the most cheery of topics for the holidays, but suicide is an issue all year long (actually, November and December have the lowest rate of suicide, contrary to the widespread myth). What do we do? No one has a true answer, but I think if we can be more sensitive and extend some sympathy, then we can help.
In honor of all the suffering, in honor of those who couldn’t take it a second longer, and in honor of their families, let’s please let them know they’re supported and loved. Life can be hard, but we can help each other.