Several years ago, my teenage daughter spent two stints in rapid succession in a mental hospital due to suicidal ideation. She’d recently been diagnosed as bipolar. We were still trying to understand what that meant when the hospitalizations occurred. My child was a young teen, just leaving her pre-teen self, when kids still hold on to their childlike selves despite budding adulthood. I felt it was my “job” to protect her, but how could I protect her from the thoughts going on inside her head? There is a real sense of helplessness as you watch your child descend into irrationality, confusion and paranoia. It’s like they are having a chronic, wide-awake nightmare, and you cannot wake or soothe them.
We spent countless hours with therapists and doctors trying to get a handle on the situation, trying to stabilize my daughter. It felt like the blind leading the blind. We were looking to the professionals to figure out what to do, and they were looking to us to understand what was happening. In truth, we were all guessing. All the while, my daughter’s condition was getting worse.
And yet, we were the lucky ones. Sadly, I know a few families whose children were successful in their suicide attempts. I cannot imagine a more searing pain. I have watched as parents tried to make sense of the unfathomable. As they faced their daily responsibilities, they could forget for a moment, only to have the painful reality cloud their minds in an instant. I do not know where they found the strength to move forward in life. But many do. They soldier on.
I cannot speak for them or articulate their pain and their struggle to find a life afterwards. I can only watch with grief for their pain and awe at their resilience.
In watching the struggles of my own daughter, especially when compared to the chronic, physical illness of another family member, I could see quite clearly that she, too, suffered from an illness. This was not a matter of insufficient willpower. In fact, her willpower was amazing. The only reason she made it to the hospital was because she told me she was having disturbing thoughts and needed help. Not everyone can put words to their struggles. That doesn’t mean anyone who suffers from debilitating mental illness or suicidal ideation is not strong or fighting for themselves. I imagine it takes enormous strength just to get through the average day in such conditions.
I wish I had answers to the problem of suicide, and more broadly mental health. I sincerely wish insurance companies would treat mental health on par with physical health – instead of limiting the number of therapy visits per year, even with the very best of insurance plans. I wish there was more research into the physical operation of the brain which would help us better diagnose mental illness, rather than relying on behavioral cues. Given our technological advances, it seems so odd to me that we have such a limited understanding of the mechanisms of our own brains and how that impacts our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We can see empirically how slight physical or environmental changes can impact us. It seems obvious that just needing food or coffee can literally change anyone’s personality. So why don’t we approach mental health more like physical health, with the understanding that it can be impacted by any number of variables other than the force of one’s personality? I don’t know.
For those out there struggling, please ask for help. It can save your life. Speak to trusted people in your life. You can also call one of the many crisis hotlines, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day in English and Spanish at 800-273-8255.
And if you have a loved one struggling, please take it seriously. Know that someone struggling with mental health issues, especially a child, may not have the vocabulary to accurately communicate what they are feeling. Please note the signs, and if you have any concerns, please contact one of the many organizations that can help you better understand suicide and what you can do to help.
A good place to start is with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), an outstanding organization.
The Cleveland Clinic shares more common warning signs that a person may be contemplating suicide:
Mood swings or sadness: Long-lasting sadness and mood swings can lead to depression, a major risk factor for suicide.
Then calmness: After the depression, a period of abrupt calmness follows.
Loss of interest and withdrawal: Avoidance of friends or social activities and loss of interest in the things they previously enjoyed.
Patterns change: Behavioral changes occur related to personal appearance, sleep patterns, speech and movement.
Dangerous behavior: Engaging in self-harmful behavior, such as reckless driving or increasing their use of alcohol or drugs.
Recent trauma: Crises or loss such as divorce or break-up of a relationship, the death of a loved one or pet, diagnosis of illness, job loss or serious financial problems.
Hopeless and full of despair: In deep despair with no reason to keep living. Seeing self as a burden to others or being in extreme emotional distress.
Putting their affairs in order: Making a will, visiting friends and family members and giving away personal possessions, and cleaning up their room or home. Seeking for ways to purchase a gun. Perhaps writing a note before attempting suicide.
Suicidal threats: Whether they are considering ending their life or not, not everyone who is will say so, and not everyone will follow through with it. Each and every suicide threat should be taken seriously.
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