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Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

Let's Talk About Mental Illness and Suicide

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Let's talk about it. Let's stop whispering about mental illness and suicide. Two suicides -- one close to home (Cheryl Hanna, who many of us had known and loved), and another, Robin Williams (who we had known as an actor who made us laugh and sometimes cry) -- have forced us to ask, "Why?"

Each was at the prime of life -- why would they have wanted to kill themselves? We never knew, we didn't have a clue, or so it seemed.

Their suffering had been silenced by the taboo that continues to surround mental illness. We can talk about cancer in great detail, but we can't find the right words to talk about mental illness.

Silence is the curtain that hides guilt. You can't see the scars of mental illness, but they are there, just under the skin. Neither Cheryl Hanna nor Robin Williams, as far as we know, could talk about their inner torment. They were afraid that talking about it would create a stigma, that their careers would suffer, that exposing their illness would be a sign of personal failure. They were not normal.

It's time to open the curtain and reveal the realities of mental illnesses that sometimes lead to suicide. Unlike other illnesses, which we have reduced like heart disease, the number of suicides has increased. Suicide kills twice as many people as homicides and more people than car accidents, AIDS and prostate cancer.

We have the tools of prevention at hand -- anti-depressants, talk therapy and electric convulsive therapy (ECT), which frightens some but helps many.

There is no single pill that will "cure" depression, but it can be managed if we can talk about it without embarrassment, without feeling it's our fault.

That is not easy, I know. My father committed suicide when I was two and a half years old -- and I say this with difficulty, even now. Growing up, I was told my father died of a heart attack. No mention of suicide. It would be bad for a child to learn the truth. I discovered the truth much later, as an adult.

We must learn to speak truth about suicide. Only by talking can we uncover this hidden plague -- 39,000 deaths a year -- and reduce these tragedies which leave families and friends devastated, asking again and again, "why" and "if only."

We can start by keeping guns out of the house when a family member is depressed. Gun shot wounds almost always kill.

The best prevention is sunlight -- bring mental illness out of the dark corridors, and out into the open where it can be seen as a illness, an illness that is free of shame and which can be healed.