Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Since joining the field of ministry, I have learned to hold this saying in my heart, but it truly pains me when I see the depth of some of these secret battles—especially when it leads to tragedy. A few years ago, our community was rocked by news that was and is one of the most tragic events in my life. A family very near and dear to our hearts had all passed away, simultaneously. My stepson’s life-long best friend, two former students who were now in middle and high school, a family that my husband and stepchildren had dined with, laughed with and even vacationed with just two months earlier—everyone was gone. When news spread through our community, we all clung together in horror trying to figure out what could have caused something so terrible, until finally we received the news that none of us were expecting: it was a murder-suicide at the hands of the father.
I have to admit that typically when I have heard stories like this on the news, the first words that came to mind were “selfish” or “evil.” However, anyone who knew this man knew that this was the exact opposite of the way we experienced him. “Selfless” and “loving” are the words I would use to describe him. His family was engaged in the community, supportive of one another, and seemed so happy. None of us could make sense of it, so we tried desperately to fill in the blanks. “Did we miss something?” “He mentioned some challenges at work.” “Should we have seen this as a possibility?” “We knew there was a history of mental illness in his family.” “Perhaps his wife tried to clue us in to their secret battle, but we were too dense to hear her?” This is one of the harshest realities of suicide. Not only are you dealing with the pain of loss but also, in most cases, there is never an explanation. As humans, we crave a narrative arc, and in cases of suicide, we might never get a resolution. It is like a favorite series that is abruptly cancelled without the dignity of a finale or a song in which the final chord never resolves. We are left feeling…raw.
The reality is, it isn’t always easy to spot the warning signs. Often people with mental illness are very adept at hiding it. I know this because I myself have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past and have a colorful spattering of mental illness in my family tree, yet I am quite skilled at the illusion of normalcy. I fear that we as a society have put different mental illnesses into a stereotypical box, and if someone doesn’t look the way that a “depressed person” should look, then we assume they actually are fine, when they say as much. But let’s be honest—not all depressed people are sitting at home with messy hair, eating ice cream and missing weeks of work. Some of us are still quite functional and walk through the day with an invisible, yet oh-so heavy fog, that we hide with a smile and a bubbly personality until the end of the day when we finally collapse from the exhaustion of keeping up the façade.
Despite my own battles with depression, I have been fortunate enough that I have never been suicidal, but the statistics are alarming. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as of 2014, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall, and the second leading cause of death amongst people between the ages of 15 and 34. The number of attempts far surpasses this already shocking number. It is apparent that we must make cultural changes in order to address the prevalence of suicide in this country.
The most common cause of suicide is mental illness, yet we still struggle as a society to handle these invisible afflictions appropriately. It has been said, but it bears repeating. We absolutely must start treating mental illness the same way we do a physical illness. But what does that look like?
- First, we need to discuss issues of mental health in our families the same way we would talk about heart disease or cancer. It is very common to hear older relatives advising younger nieces and nephews of diet or exercise that might help reduce the risk of a heart attack if they have a history of heart disease. In the same way, I have been told since birth to wear sunscreen and a hat because of the high rate of skin cancer in my family. Yet, when it comes to a relative with bipolar disorder, we whisper in the corner to keep it a secret. Instead of treating this as if it is shameful, let’s be honest within family communities about mental illness. If you do happen to have a genetic predisposition to depression, discuss healthy practices that can help. I personally have learned that a wholesome diet, regular exercise, time outdoors and elimination of caffeine are critical to my mental health. Moderation of alcohol is also imperative. While it in no way “cures” me, it does drastically reduce the severity of my symptoms.
- Second, if your family is at risk of mental illness, build a relationship with mental health professionals. I have never heard of a parent who waited to find a pediatrician until after their child’s first bout of pneumonia. We take our children in for wellness visits annually, and as adults, if cholesterol is a family concern, we ask for blood work periodically to screen for any potential issues. Why don’t we do the same for depression or anxiety? Finding a skilled mental health professional who is a) taking new clients, b) a good fit for your or your child and c) actually willing to accept your insurance is the worst, and it’s the last thing you have the mental stamina to do when you are in an actual crisis. I’m not suggesting that you herd your kids in to therapy every week as soon as they can talk, but it doesn’t hurt to establish a relationship with a practice you trust and to begin discussing coping mechanisms with children so that if they ever do start to feel symptoms of depression, they know what they are feeling and ways they can handle it.
- Third, can we please stop shaming people for taking medication? Seriously, just stop. Why is it acceptable to take ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure, yet unacceptable to admit that you need serotonin inhibitors for depression? Yes, lifestyle changes are helpful in both of these scenarios, but you or a loved one might come to a point where medicine is necessary. Let’s talk openly about these medications with family members and friends so that everyone isn’t quietly learning the hard way that it sometimes takes months to find the right dosage or medication and how important it is to slowly taper off from the drugs if and when it is time to stop taking them.
- Finally, if you do not understand depression because you have never experienced it, please educate yourself. The reality is that you are probably interacting with multiple people who struggle with some form of mental illness, but you just don’t know it. It isn’t always possible to just stop feeling that way. Someone struggling from depression can’t fix themselves by choosing happiness any easier than a diabetic can cure themselves by thinking about healthy insulin levels.
Unfortunately, mental illness isn’t the only risk factor of suicide. Traumatic events can serve as a catalyst for suicide, or some people are struggling with a secret that they feel is too shameful to share. This secret eats away at them until they convince themselves that they are unlovable or unworthy of the gift of life. This is an area where I feel we as a church sometimes fail our community. As Christians, my prayer for us is that we can establish an authentic network of love that would help people feel comfortable sharing the darkest spaces of their hearts. However, in order to do this, it requires that those of us who have lived through hardships open up about our struggles and stop trying to make everyone see how shiny and #blessed our lives are. It also requires that we as a community fight to rid ourselves of the stereotypes Christians have so painfully earned over the years as a group of people who are judgmental and like to gossip. Very few things ruffle my feathers more than a gossip collector hiding their toxic tendencies under the guise of “Christian concern.” It is deplorable. If someone in your small group is hurting the trust in your community, please address it. Stop worrying about being polite, and start worrying about the long-term ramifications of building a culture that does not allow people to safely air out their hardships for fear of judgment.
Suicide is terrible, and sadly I will never know what exactly happened in my friends’ private lives during those final moments. The ripples of pain that were created had a lasting effect that can still be felt years later by everyone involved. However, my hope for others is that we can work together to help shine a light on the dark spaces where the enemy convinces people their life is not worth living. Let’s fight to create a safe space where people are real and mental illness is not shameful. Most importantly, let’s pour light and love into everything and everyone we touch, for we truly never know the battles people are secretly fighting.