The Truth About Depression and Suicide

Suicide has quickly become one of the top killers across all age groups, races, sexes and socio-economic classes. You cannot go a week these days without seeing multiple stories in the news about suicide. Celebrities. Children. Veterans. And those are just the stories the press finds newsworthy enough to report on. Across the country and all around the world, people are dying by their own hands every single day at alarming numbers. And yet it is a topic nobody wants to talk about until it hits close to home. Even then, most people would rather talk about it in hushed whispers, a shameful secret they wish would just fade away, than to openly talk about it.

I have struggled with major depression my entire life. I have been suicidal more than once. I am honestly not sure how I am even still alive today because with each of my attempts, I told no one, I secluded myself, I gave no forewarning or signs that things had gotten so bad that I wanted to give up. Though people knew I was struggling, nobody really knew how badly. I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to stop me. More than once, whether by the grace of God or some strange twist of fate, someone came through a doorway to find my unconscious body barely clinging to life. More than once, I woke up in the hospital not sure how I even got there.

I have also been on the other side of that fence, losing people I cared about to suicide. I have been blindsided by their death, torturing myself for feeling like I didn’t see the signs, not realizing how bad things were, not being there to help when they desperately needed someone. I have spent endless hours thinking back over missed opportunities that I might have been able to intervene and make a difference. I have been haunted by words I did not say and calls I did not make that might have made the difference between life and death.

Part of me, though, knows better than to torture myself with hindsight. I have been on both sides of that fence. I know all too well that unless you actually know what to look for, the signs are usually not even visible until someone is looking in the rear-view mirror. But by then it is too late. The crash has already happened. And you can’t turn back time. The best anyone can honestly do is to be proactive, to talk openly, honestly and regularly about their own mental health and that of those they care about. We need to make everyone’s mental health as much of a priory as our physical health.  As hard a topic as suicide may be, it’s harder still to bury someone you love. I believe this difficult conversation is long past due.

Please know that most people don’t normally wake up one day out of the blue and decide to kill themselves. Barring some drastic, life altering circumstance or great loss that seemingly destroys someone’s entire life in a heartbeat making them lose all hope in an instant, suicidal feelings usually develop over an extended period of anguish. The weight of the world is piled on again and again, making everything feel increasingly hopeless.  Eventually, you reach the point when you cannot take anymore. You’ve found the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and you collapse under the weight of it all.

You don’t go directly from life being fine to choosing to die like a car going from zero to sixty in a few seconds flat. It is a slow build. It begins with feeling overwhelmed with life itself. Everything feels increasingly too hard, too overwhelming. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, like you can never fully catch your breath. It feels like no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change, that you’ve been dealt a losing hand and there’s no way to exchange your cards. The deck is rigged and you’ve lost big time.  Everything in life begins to feel like a struggle, an uphill battle, a fight you cannot win. You feel like you no longer have any control of your own fate.  You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, not sure how much more you can keep going, how much strength you have left.

The first suicidal thoughts that creep in are abstract. You’re not making specific plans to kill yourself. You look outside during a snowstorm and ponder how long you would have to be exposed to the elements before everything just faded to black. You look at the currents of the river coursing by and ponder what it would be like to just be pulled under, swept away. When you pass a set of train tracks, you wonder where along the tracks it might be dark enough that they wouldn’t see you until it was too late. The thought of death is more of a fade to black. A sweet escape. Death itself becomes a daydream. Those abstract thoughts are commonly referred to as suicidal ideation.

With suicidal ideation, it isn’t so much about dying as it is about wanting to be freed from a life you feel is too painful to continue. The thought of death almost feels like a peaceful, sweet release. You become increasingly consumed by the thought of ending your suffering, of fading away, of just disappearing from the story, not having to fight or cry anymore, of just being free.

Most people who are suicidal honestly don’t want to die. For days, weeks, months, they’ve been soul-searching and agonizing, looking for any reason to keep going and not give up. It isn’t a decision made lightly or spur of the moment. They’ve been secretly fighting to hold on, to live, to find any reason to cling to so they don’t give up.  They have just reached the point where they feel they cannot take anymore, cannot hurt anymore, cannot go one more day living in their own personal hell.

Neither suicidal ideation or suicide itself are a plea for attention. It honestly is not about anyone else at all. Nobody who tries to kill themselves is thinking “I’ll show them!” or “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” like a kindergartner contemplating running away from home. By the time someone has made that ultimate choice to give up, they aren’t even thinking of anyone else beyond being convinced that others would be better off without them. They feel completely isolated and alone, in agonizing pain that they can no longer take. They are convinced their life is out of their hands and there is no way to fix anything in their life. Death is the only exit they can see in the darkness.

People often describe a loss by suicide as “unexpected” and “out of the blue”. Those who have lost someone to suicide often feel lost and confused, bewildered about how anyone could give up on life when they “had so much to live for”. The problem is that by the time someone is at that point of giving up, they have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they can no longer see any of the light. All they can feel is hopelessness and despair. And they feel utterly alone.

It’s nearly impossible for those who have not been there themselves to understand how anything could possibly get that bad, how anything could feel so hopeless, how anyone could feel so alone. I have frequently seen suicide aptly described as a bi-product of depression, heard others refer to suicide as a death caused by a person’s mental illness. Truer words have never been spoken.

Depression is a nefarious and deadly disease. It eats at your mental and emotional well-being just as surely as cancerous tumors eat away at a person’s body. And just like cancer weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight it off, depression feeds off your ability to distinguish reality and see anything but the darkness and despair that the illness wants you to see.  It systematically breaks and devours you until there is no will left to fight anymore.

Depression is not an illness you can easily disregard. You cannot just “suck it up”. It will not go away because you spew out some tired cliches about life or insist someone just try a little harder to be happy. Depression cannot be cured by taking a walk, going for a run or getting yourself a dog. It is not mind over matter or learning to toughen up. It is a serious medical condition and one that can have deadly consequences if left untreated.

People talk about being dumbfounded by someone’s suicide, of not seeing it coming. But honestly, there are plenty of signs there if someone takes the time to actually look and listen.

Has the person withdrawn themselves from family and friends, frequently making excuses about being too busy, swamped with life or feeling under the weather?

Have they stopped doing things they enjoy? Quit groups or teams? Given up hobbies they once loved? Are they spending a good portion of their time alone seemingly doing nothing?

Have their sleep patterns changed drastically? Are they laying down and sleeping more or are they up more with insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to sleep?

Has their appearance changed drastically? Losing or gaining weight? Not showering as much or wearing dirty clothes? Keeping their hair pulled back so they never have to tend to it or not shaving for long periods of time that is inconsistent with how they used to present themselves?

Is their room or house even more of a mess than usual or are they frequently wearing stained clothes like they just don’t care anymore? Do they always seem to be asking you to “excuse the mess”?

Are they frequently talking abut being exhausted, overly tired or fed up? Do they make comments about being tired of fighting or regularly insist life shouldn’t be this hard?

Are they frequently edgy, snippy and short with everyone as if they’re trying to push everyone away? Does everything seem to annoy them?

Are they frequently uncharacteristically silent as if they’re lost in their own world? Do they seem more scatterbrained than usual, life their mind is always off somewhere else?

Are they frequently sad, overly emotional or teary?

Do their emotional responses in general seem more raw, exaggerated and over-the-top as if they are feeling everything much stronger than usual?

Are they smiling and laughing less or are they pursing their lips together when they smile as if it was forced? Does their laughter seem less frequent and insincere, as if they’re trying to give you the reaction they believe you want even though their heart is not really in it?

Do they often blame puffy eyes or stuffy noses on allergies even when it’s not allergy season or they have not ventured outsides to be exposed to seasonal allergens?

Do they often insist they’re “fine” with no elaboration and claim they don’t want to talk about it when pressed, using dismissive phrases like “it is what it is” as if they have no control over their own life?

These are just some of the common signs of depression. Though they do not necessarily mean a person is currently considering suicide, it is likely they are struggling along that path. If you see drastic changes in mood and appearance, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask whether they’re okay. If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, there is usually a reason why. Don’t be afraid to call attention to drastic changes that concern you.

And please know it should never be a “one and done”. Even if you inquired once and they insisted they were fine, you can’t shrug and walk off, telling yourself that “hey I tried”. If someone’s depression has gotten bad enough that you can see multiple signs, it did not happen overnight and it is not going to be resolved overnight either. It might take multiple times of checking in and reaching out before someone is finally able to open up.

That is because depression isolates us. It gets into our head and convinces us that nobody cares, that we are all alone in the world. It is easier for us to believe that someone is asking how we are just to be nice or to make polite small talk than to believe they’re genuinely invested in our well-being.
People struggling with depression also have a lot of trust issues. Most likely, we have tried talking to others in the past and have been shot down or had our feelings minimized. Or we have heard you or others talk dismissively about their struggles so we’re unsure how supportive you’ll be for us. We’re afraid of being seen as weak or broken or crazy. We’re afraid to let anyone in only to get hurt again. Everything has felt like a fight for so long that we’re weary about letting anyone else in, too. And we don’t want to be a burden or to let anyone down by admitted we aren’t “strong enough”.

You cannot let yourself be discouraged, though. Continue to reach out every few days, even if just to check in about how they are doing. If someone seems to be cancelling plans a lot to go out, offer to come over and visit. If they make excuses about a mess, offer to help them clean it. If they claim they feel under the weather, offer to bring soup. Whatever you do, don’t let them continue to isolate. Let them know you miss them and just want to see them. Reinforce that they matter.

Coordinate with others in their life. Take turns checking in and offering reassurances. Make it clear that multiple people care and that they are not alone. Create a united front where everyone can face the depression together.
Most importantly, make it clear that it is okay to talk about whatever they are feeling and to get help. Don’t further stigmatize doctors or medication.  Don’t suggest it’s all in their head or tell them to suck it up and get over it. Don’t treat them like they’e crazy or broken. Remember that they are sick and need help. Be supportive. Be part of the solution not part of the problem.

If you are seeing yourself in these words, if you are exhausted and struggling to keep going, tired of fighting, tired of hurting, wanting to give up, please realize that those feelings are not reality. Your depression is lying to you, making all the bad in your life feel exaggerated and overwhelming and is snuffing out the light. Please know that you are not alone and there are others out there who understand completely what you are going through. You’ve got to fight this. Don’t give up. Reach out. Talk to friends, family, a therapist, a pastor. Someone. Anyone. Just don’t give up. Don’t shut everyone out. I know all too well that siren’s call that death will bring peace but it really won’t. Not for you and not for everyone in your life that you’ll be leaving behind. You can get past this.

Looking back, I am grateful I never succeeded. I feel blessed to still be here. Because now I have the ability to reach out and help others, to be the voice that shines like a beacon to light up the darkness. I am in a unique position where I understand not only the great loss that comes with losing someone to suicide but also the steep descent into the hopelessness of depression myself. Suffering in silence for years almost killed me multiple times. I can only hope that by finally speaking up, speaking out, I can help save others from succumbing to that darkness themselves.

Depression and suicide have robbed the world of so many beautiful souls. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends. They have stolen so many lives from us far too soon. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich then claim later that we didn’t see the signs, didn’t know things were that bad. We are one society, one world. We have to start acting like it. We must start looking out for one another, be there for each other, truly listen and hear. The signs are there. We just have to take off our blinders and see them. We cannot pretend everything is fine because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation. Inaction kills. We need to be proactive, not only with our own mental health but towards those we care about, as well. We all have the power to save lives if we are willing to actually reach out and try.

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Please Give Mental Illness The Same Respect You Would Give Other Illnesses

Not everyone understands what it is like living with a mental illness. I get that. Most people, at their core, mean well and are trying to help in one way or another.  Whether they are attempting to be supportive or trying to snap someone back into their perceived “reality”, they just don’t know what to say.  I understand that completely, too. But using tired old cliches about life that don’t apply to living with a serious illness does not help at all.  Nor does it help to offer outdated advice that has been proven to be both ignorant and ineffective.  They do much more harm than good. It not only minimizes our condition and our struggles, but it also tells us that you neither understand what we are going through nor do you take our illness, or us, seriously.

Please do not tell us that “everyone has problems sometimes“, “into everyone’s life a little rain must fall“, or that “nobody said life was fair“.  Likewise, please don’t tell us “it is what it is” or “everyone gets depressed sometimes“, as if our diagnosis is an everyday, trivial, meaningless bit of happenstance that is unimportant and should be paid no mind.  A mental illness is not an average, run of the mill problem, a typical bump in the road of life that everyone faces at some point and is easily cast aside or overcome. It is a medical diagnosis, a medical condition that drastically affects every aspect of our lives.  You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that everyone has problems sometimes, laughing it off like it was nothing. You would show an appropriate level of concern over their health and well-being. You would encourage them to see a doctor and take care of themselves. You would be supportive. You wouldn’t dream of minimizing their condition because, left untreated, it could have deadly consequences. So could my mental illness and it deserves to be treated in the same regard.

Asking us if we’ve “just tried being happy“, telling us we “need to just learn to focus on the positives” or otherwise suggesting we’re not trying hard enough misplaces the blame on us for our diagnosis. The patient is never to blame when their body goes haywire and runs amuck. We understand that sometimes our bodies malfunction, become unbalanced, and horrible things like tumors occur.  You can’t will away cancer with a positive outlook and trying harder won’t make tumors disappear. The same goes for mental illnesses.  We don’t tell someone with cancer that it is “all in their head“, “mind over matter“, and expect them to become healthy again by sheer willpower alone. We encourage them to see a doctor immediately, get everything taken care of and treated so their body can work properly and be healthy again. Untreated cancer can eat a person alive from the inside out, deteriorating their health and destroying the quality of their life in every way. So can mental illness. The only difference is cancer mainly attacks and destroys the physical body while mental illnesses primarily attack the mind.

Please don’t judge us on our appearance, telling us that we “don’t look sick” or that we “just need to smile more” as if our diagnosis is even remotely dependent on our outward appearance.  Also, please don’t tell us that we “don’t look all that sad to you” or that we “looked just fine the other day” because we have briefly managed to put on a brave face or wear a mask to hide our pain.  Having a good day here and there does not negate all the bad ones.  Invisible illnesses are still illnesses.  Like many other serious health conditions inside the body, you cannot often or easily see mental illness with the naked eye.  Not seeing a tumor growing inside someone does not make it any less real or dangerous.  Not seeing a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning does not mean it is not happening or that they do not need treatment.  Someone with cancer or another serious medical condition occasionally smiling, laughing or briefly enjoying life does not mean that they are instantly cured and tumor-free.  Just because you cannot see our mental illness does not mean we are not suffering.

Asking us “why can’t you just be normal?” or suggesting that we “need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves” not only blames us for our diagnosis but treats us as if we’re somehow broken or flawed and it is all in our head.  Nobody asks to have a mental illness nor does anyone want to be sick.  We are not doing this to ourselves.  We are not having pity parties. Please don’t suggest we’re just looking for attention or tell us that “the only one we’re hurting is ourselves” either, as if we’re intentionally sabotaging our own happiness by entertaining the absurd idea of some make-believe malady.  Mental illness is a very real medical diagnosis, one that is often completely beyond our control.  Our behavior did not cause it any more than a person’s attitude or imagination can cause tumors.

Please do not suggest we should just “snap out of it and get over things already“, either.  A person cannot snap out of a mental illness diagnosis any more than they can snap out of diabetes.  There is no set time frame that someone should be better, or even show marked improvement.  Like diabetes, a mental health diagnosis often lasts a lifetime.  And the healing process with most illnesses is not linear.  A diabetic can alternate between periods of stability, and episodes of sugar spikes and crashes, dangerous highs and lows that drastically and dangerously impact their health.  Similarly, even when in ongoing mental health treatment, a series of good days can be interrupted by periods of downward spiraling or numbness, and worsening symptoms as we attempt to balance medications and work through both past and new traumas.  Along the same lines as the fact that we refuse to take the blame for our illness, we are also under no obligation to heal on anyone else’s schedule or whim.  It is our illness, our treatment, and we will take as long as we need to take to heal fully and properly, even if it takes a lifetime.

Do not remind us that “every cloud has a silver lining” or tell us to “look on the bright side“, suggesting that we need to look for something positive at the core of our struggle.  Likewise, please never tell us that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or tell us that “it is God’s will“, as if our suffering was some divine gift or that it will be worth it in the long run.  Again, it is an illness, a medical diagnosis.  You would not confront a diabetic who must have their feet amputated due to their condition and suggest that they would somehow come out stronger for their loss.  You would not imply to a patient who cannot keep down any food because they are undergoing chemotherapy that the silver lining is that they always did want to lose a few pounds.  You would not tell anyone that their illness was a blessing in disguise, that they should be grateful for their suffering and pain.  Comments like those would be not only wildly inappropriate but also extremely insensitive, as well.  You would offer the person suffering your compassion, sympathy and support.  People with mental illnesses deserve the same.  There is nothing positive about our diagnosis or our struggle so please don’t insist we look for a silver lining or a bright side that is not there.

Please don’t tell us that “other people have it worse“, as if our struggle is insignificant because someone else has struggled more.  Don’t ask us “what do you even have to be depressed about?“, expecting us to justify our diagnosis or quantify our suffering so you can determine its validity.  A mental illness is a bonafide medical diagnosis that deserves acknowledgement and actual medical treatment regardless of its severity in comparison to someone else’s.  It is always a serious health condition that can continue to worsen if left untreated.  You wouldn’t shrug off anyone’s cancer diagnosis as trivial or be so unsympathetic as to suggest their tumors were insignificant because someone else had larger ones.  Cancer is always taken seriously.  Mental illness should be, as well.

If we trust you enough to open up about our diagnosis, please don’t shut us down by telling us “there are just some things you just shouldn’t talk about” or reminding us that “some things should be kept private“.  That is ignorance and stigma talking.  Yes, we understand that mental illness is uncomfortable to discuss.  So is any other serious medical diagnosis.  The difference is that families and friends will discuss other illnesses and the impact they will have on everyone’s lives.  We sincerely apologize for any discomfort our diagnosis might give you, but please know that we are not confiding in you hoping you can solve it or make anything better.  We are sharing our diagnosis because we consider you an integral part of our lives and we want you to be aware of everything that is going on.  Don’t tell us that we shouldn’t talk about mental illness as if it is something we should be ashamed of having.  The biggest reason this diagnosis has become so rampant in society today is because no one talked about it for far too long.  No one talked and nobody sought treatment.  But silence won’t make the problem go away.  Health issues don’t vanish because you refuse to acknowledge them.  It will only make it worse.

Please stop shaming us for our diagnosis altogether or our efforts to seek treatment.  Don’t tell us that “all we really need is some fresh air and some running shoes” in order to feel better.  Don’t tell us that “only weak people rely on medication” or suggest we try vitamin regimens, scented oils or other homeopathic remedies instead of what we have been prescribed.  We have seen actual doctors.  Medical professionals have given us a verifiable medical diagnosis and prescribed us the appropriate medications to treat that diagnosis.  You wouldn’t shame a diabetic for using insulin to balance their body so please stop shaming us for taking our prescriptions to balance our minds.  You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they didn’t need chemo, to just go for a brisk run or take a nice, long bath instead.  That is because it is widely accepted that chemotherapy is used to treat cancer and insulin to treat diabetes.  If you are willing to accept other medical diagnoses and treatments as valid, please accept ours, as well.

Please don’t attack us, demanding to know “what have you even done with yourself lately?” or otherwise question why we are not able to function as well as a healthy person.  Don’t interrogate us about what we have and have not accomplished recently, either, as if our level of productivity must meet your standards or our activity must be on par with yours.  Having a mental illness takes a lot out of a person, both mentally and physically.  It is perfectly acceptable for someone who has just undergone chemotherapy to spend a day in bed if they so need it.  If a diabetic has a sugar crash and feels under the weather, others will suggest they go lay down and feel better.  Healing and recovery time is acceptable for all other illnesses.  It should be for mental illnesses, too.

For so many years, mental illness was treated as something shameful, something you just didn’t discuss, something whispered about in dark corners.  With the continuing rise of suicides, addictions and other mental health crisis in our society, mental illness is being spoken about today on a scale previously unimaginable.  I understand that it might take some time for everyone to fully understand how to openly discuss our diagnosis with both compassion and respect after being shrouded in secrecy and stigma for so long.  When unsure how to proceed, many people turn to old cliches and outdated advice that they believe have stood the test of time.  However, many of those statements and sayings are not at all appropriate or applicable to mental illnesses.  If you are unsure what to say to someone with a mental illness, a good place to start would be to ask yourself if you would say those words to someone else with any other serious illness.  If you cannot imagine saying it to someone with cancer or diabetes, for example, it’s a good bet that it is not an appropriate response to our diagnosis, either.

After all, people with mental illnesses are not asking for special treatment.  We are just asking to be treated with the same courtesy you would treat anyone else who is ill.