Embracing Adventure “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” ~~Hellen Keller

Let’s Talk About Mental Illness, Suicide, & Stigma

A year and a month ago today, Robin Williams took his life. On that day, and for a few weeks after, in addition to an outpouring of posts remembering the joy he brought to lives through his comedy, I saw a lot of posts acknowledging the normalcy of having mental health issues, letting people know that it is okay to ask for help, and showing people where there are resources. And then that tapered off. Even yesterday, which was World Suicide Prevention Day, I hardly saw any posts about suicide prevention or mental health.

I’ve actually been planning on posting about this for awhile. I kept putting it aside, intending to devote more time to it, not sure how to say what I wanted to say, and in what seemed like no time at all, I had let a year go by. Rather than continue to let time slide by without making this post, I decided to make it today. Whatever words I have when it’s time to hit “publish” will have to be enough for now. I can always add more later. What’s important is to begin the conversation.

I’ll begin by sharing this video of a TED talk by Denny Morris in in which he discusses stigma and mental illness and how mental health is related to physical health. If you have an extra 10 minutes, check it out. If not, it won’t be necessary to follow what I want to say about it below.

About two minutes into this video, Morris asks how many people in the audience have been treated for heart disease and cancer. Then he asks how many have been treated for mental illness or addiction. He then asks how many think he got a more honest answer to the first question than the second. I agree with those in the audience who raised their hands here. Personally, I have been treated for heart disease (hypertension) and before that cancer (melanoma) and have openly discussed both. I don’t really hesitate before I post anything about physical health and actually have a whole separate blog dedicated to fitness.

And yet, I’ve yet to publicly share much meaningful about personal mental health issues and waited a year before making this post, which isn’t even going to go that deep. I even hesitated to share issues with my counseling psychology classmates, despite knowing that everything was expected to be as confidential as in a therapy session. This hesitation goes back to another thing that Morris discusses: stigma.

People don’t tend to describe others as their physical illness, but people with mental illnesses or who are perceived to have one are often described by them. This contributes to stigma.

I have discussed stigma a little here before. I have been around people who have been open about their mental illnesses and heard them called “crazy” behind their backs and heard speculations made about their emotional and mental stability. I have seen the fear people have of those with mental illness because it’s popular in the media to blame mental illness as a reason for crimes, despite the fact that most violent people are not mentally ill and most people with mental illness are not violent. Even among mental health professionals and those studying to be, there are several disorders people discuss being hesitant to treat yet always discuss in terms of the people being difficult. Over the years, all of these things and more have been part of my hesitation, and probably the hesitation of others, to both discuss and seek help for mental health problems.

Morris mentions that, of those who get a referral for mental health care, only 25% will follow through. Several years ago, I had an emotional breakdown at work in which I couldn’t seem to stop crying for any significant length of time, especially after a concerned coworker had gotten me to start telling her what was wrong. She got our manager who tried to take me to the onsite counselor. She wasn’t in, so he sent me to my car with an employee assistance program number and asked me to talk to one of the specialists there. After speaking at some length to the woman on the other end of the line, she recommended that I go to a local counselor and gave me several names and phone numbers.

When you see someone’s suffering, there is often much more, during that time as well as before and after that you don’t know about. Be kind.

I pulled myself together enough to get back to work and went home intending to follow through at least for the number of sessions my work would have covered…and I never did. I chickened out. Although I managed to pull myself through that period in my life, I am sure I suffered for longer and in more isolation than I would have if I’d just gone to any one of the available counselors. And the same can be said for every time before and since then that I’ve found myself struggling.

Although that particular incident was prompted by a life event, it was compounded by underlying issues, issues that I have long struggled with and have had a slow process of learning to cope with on my own. Although I think I’ve done so relatively successfully, how much pain and suffering might have I saved myself (and perhaps others who were around me) if it wasn’t so taboo to discuss mental health problems, if it was as natural to schedule a mental health appointment as it is to schedule a checkup with a physician? And I’m lucky that I’m one of the relatively “high functioning” of those with similar issues. Were I less-so, I wonder if I would still be here to write this post.

At the bottom of this post you’ll find phone numbers including one you can text to if you are in crisis.

I don’t remember when I first considered committing suicide, but I know I was in junior high when I wrote a poem to talk myself out of it. One of my parents found it and dragged me to a counselor, whom I only talked to for one day. The reasons surrounding my thoughts of doing that and my less-than-stellar experience with the counselor are difficult to discuss due to expectations by and the involvement of others, so I’m going to gloss over that for now. However, I wanted to mention the incident because I want people to realize that the idea of taking oneself out of the world can happen so young, and it doesn’t usually end there. It didn’t for me, anyhow. If I were counting the number of times I’ve had suicidal thoughts since then, I wouldn’t be able to. I never got to the point of making an attempt, but I have struggled like you may not believe with the thoughts. Looking back, I’m starting to think of them as a distress signal, a warning that something’s not right.

And yet, I have never reached out in a moment of crisis to tell anyone that’s what it was. Some might think that’s a strength. Not really. I don’t think it’s cowardice, exactly, but definitely at least prompted by fears. Although I think I’m more apt to reach out if I needed to now than I was years ago, I think I’d still have hesitations before seeking any help that would require official paperwork, insurance reimbursement, etc. I don’t think I’m alone in that. In fact here is a video by Carrie Hope Fletcher who discusses her tendency to be bad at asking for help but it being the braver thing to do, which helps you get better faster.

While we’re waiting on the decline of stigma and an increase in mental health treatment acceptance and availability, people are still going to be struggling, some of them with the very question of whether and how long they want to hang on in the world, so I want to close this out with a few things that may be helpful to you or someone you know now or in the future:

Here is a video of a TED talk by Mark Henick on Why We Choose Suicide in which he discusses his suicide attempts, appearing normal most days, perceptual reality, and ways to be a part of changing the perception of mental health issues. I think I may want to talk more about this video another time but wanted to share it now for those who might be helped by it:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK/8255 (This number is open to all Americans in crisis, not just those who are thinking of killing themselves and will link you to a trained crisis worker who can listen to your problems and tell you about mental health services in your area). The Veteran Crisis Line for Veterans, service members, and their loved ones can also be reached through this line or by texting 838255.

Crisis Text Line: Text 741741 The texts to this line are free of charge for AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, or Verizon but standard text message rates apply for other carries. If you want to support people in crisis, you can train to be a volunteer for this line. Go here for more info.

You can find self help blogs and a chat wall on the  Just Listening to You Facebook Page. If you happen to be in the UK, Bernie Bentley runs a group called Just Listening to You with meetings on Friday mornings in Wickford and on Wednesday in Southend.

If you have another resource for people in crisis you’d like listed here, please let me know and I can add it to this post.  

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4 Thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Mental Illness, Suicide, & Stigma

  1. Great work, thanks for the wonderful links! As a sufferer, treater, ally and human, over years I have increasingly stressed that stigma is not a side issue in mental illness discussions. In fact, based on much personal and professional experience over decades now, I am confident that stigma is a major cause of the suffering of mental illness. Stigma causes isolation, shame, abuse, neglect, treatment and policy mistakes, over and over every day all over the earth. Stigma is the biggest single contributor to death by suicide, and to all the suffering related to treatment avoided and/or never offered. Without the toxic effects of stigma, mental illnesses would be far milder experiences, far less dangerous, far less disabling. Stigma is a social evil, completely voluntary and optional. To the extent that we cure the world of stigma, a deadly form of ignorance and hate, to that extent we make mental illness that much less burdensome, and in effect, that much more cured, regardless of any treatment. I have long declared total war on stigma and invite others to do the same. With every bit of openness, with every shred of commonplace discussion of life lived with mental illness, we push this monster further away and hasten the day of its demise. We can offer all the array of available treatments in parallel. Failure is not an option. Who agrees?

    • Thank you. You’re welcome. I agree that stigma isn’t a side issue and does contribute to a large amount of suffering. I know in my personal experience, I have actively avoided treatment (and even if I eventually end up in a position where I decide I need to seek it, I would want to avoid a diagnosis) in large part due to stigma and I probably could have saved myself years of suffering. Even just being able to be open to the degree I have among the people I have has made a profound difference for me, so I can imagine that just reducing stigma would be helpful to those who could feel free to be open and not feel there is something about them which is wrong and needs to be hidden.

      I also agree that each time we are more open and willing to have commonplace discussions, we move toward pushing stigma away. I have been doing that little by little and hope one day to be able to be completely open, come what may, which I hope will encourage others to do the same. I read something this morning which prompted me to discuss problematic thinking and behavior I’ve had around meal-skipping, which I’d been debating when and how to discuss. I plan to turn into a post for my other blog, and I probably would have sat on for a long time if it had come up last year and at least might have waited a few more days or weeks if I hadn’t read that article. I wonder, if I had read that article a decade ago if I would even have been at a point to need to read it now.

  2. Thank you for writing such a brave post! I agree, stigma cripples so many people who might otherwise lead happy, functioning lives if they were only able to seek help without fear of judgment or reprisal. I’ve struggled with depression for a long time and going to work has been rough because I know I can’t say a word about it to anyone I work with–I’ve seen the whiplash behind others’ backs when they’ve admitted to struggling with depression or suicidal tendencies. I think it’s really sad that people have so little compassion for someone struggling with a mental health issue–they should be treated no differently than physical health issues!!
    Martha recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: fully published series I have yet to finishMy Profile

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for sharing your experience. I know how that feels. I am proud of the people I knew at the job I was at who took advantage of the free counseling sessions provided, but it definitely colored how people talked about them. On the other hand, when the problems we’re dealing with start bleeding into our functioning and become noticeable to others, regardless whether we seek help, that can cause chatter too. It’s kind of a no-win situation, the only real solution to which is just for people to be more tolerant and understanding. Hopefully as more people are more open that will help people to be more understanding. People tend to talk negatively about certain groups of people until they realize that people they already know and reasonably care about are part of those same groups they’ve been disparaging.

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