I don't get much done in 13 minutes. Maybe I'll check a few emails and have a cup of coffee, but that's about it. My 3-year-old might be able to put her pants on in that amount of time, albeit backwards with her batman underwear on the outside. Thirteen minutes pass, for the most part, without notice.
But here is what happens every 13 minutes? Every 13 minutes, someone in this country dies by suicide. Someone puts a gun to their head and pulls the trigger. Someone hangs him or herself or takes a bottle of pills. Take a moment to think about the type of pain that a person must feel in order to reach that moment of finality. A small minority who have died by their own hand may have done so impulsively, but the majority die while suffering from a mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. And here's the thing about mental illness, it's truly a deceptive and tricky beast. When your brain is sick, rationalism, reason and hope are lost for what seems to be an eternity.
Every 13 minutes a family gets a call or a knock on the door that changes their lives. One year ago I heard, "Holly, we lost your brother last night." I remember the time, the sweatshirt I was wearing, the shakiness in my mother's voice, what side of the bed I slept on, what the sky looked like, and wondered how news like that could come on such a beautiful day. That one phone call clearly marked the end of one period of my life and began a period that I can only describe as a "new normal."
For every reported suicide attempt, 12 people harm themselves. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death of 15- to 24-year-old Americans, and 10th overall. It is one of the few 'epidemics' that continues to get worse over time, while deaths by other causes are steadily on the decline. We have telethons and bake sales for hurricanes. We pour buckets of ice water over our head for ALS and bike hundreds of miles for MS. I do not and will never discount those causes. I truly hope everyone has a cause they can get behind. But when we hear mental illness, or when we god forbid mention suicide, we run in the other direction. We slowly shift the conversation, we go silent, and we avoid it because, well, it's easier and those words just make us plain uncomfortable, gosh darn it.
Since my brother died by suicide only a very small handful of people have asked me about what happened or have asked about him? Surely they must wonder what happened leading up to it? Did we notice any warning signs? I would think people would at least want to learn from it? But, it makes people uncomfortable. I see it on their faces and in their eyes. Or, maybe they think it's not their problem and that it can't happen to them or their family. I've seen the look on people's faces when they see a family that has lost someone to suicide. It's a strange cocktail of pity, shame, and sadness, with a twist of judgment. But, please know that each time we choose silence and avoidance, we help perpetuate the problem. Each time we shy away from a conversation about mental illness and suicide, those that are silently suffering feel more alone and those that are grieving for a loved one lost feel more pain.
There is no real "cure" for a mental illness, but merely a Band-Aid. Treatment for depression, for example, depends on the person finding the right combination of therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, et cetera. We use drugs developed over a half of a century ago and even then it's still trial and error. After finding the "perfect" combination, it doesn't always continue to work. Treatment doesn't mean that you're better, but that you are merely better equipped to fight, to exist. Some days I was able to tackle depression head on, but on other days I could only resign myself to coexist with it.
Advocating for a cause is more than sharing a post on Facebook or telling someone that is struggling to seek help. During the depths of my depression there was no way that I was going to call a hotline. I was lucky if I could get out of bed. My phone would ring off the hook and I never answered it. My head pounded vigorously and tears streamed nonsensically and perpetually down my face. I made commitments and then disappeared before they were fulfilled. My mantra was from a Vera Pavlova poem "I have brushed my teeth. This day and I are even." I thought of that line each day and it gave me a strange amount of solace. The main difference between my brother and I was that I started to talk about my depression with other people, although it took me over a year to figure out what it was, and that I had enough people to "badger" me. I had a small, but absolutely relentless, support group. And when I no longer trusted myself, I checked myself into a hospital. Not everyone has the luxury of a good support group (and good insurance).
Advocating for mental health is difficult and a lot of times it is uncomfortable. When we created The Benny Fund we knew we wanted to help, but we weren't sure how. We made a commitment to learn and then to educate others. We started a run for mental health to raise money for mental illness awareness and education. One day we were told by the superintendent of schools not to email the teachers about the run because it wasn't a school related function, even though the money was going to directly benefit their students, not to mention the fact that their email addresses are public. Once we raised funds, we decided to give scholarships to students who were affected by mental illness or who wanted to pursue a career in a mental health related field. The level of pushback we received from the school administration was sadly disheartening. We were asked not to mention mental illness in the scholarship description. We were told that no students would apply because they wouldn't want to be associated with it. We were essentially told to change our mission. Our response was that we would not change the scholarship or our language, but that we happily would double the amount.
Students did apply, and the winner of the scholarship wrote, "During my sophomore year I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder ... I was afraid my peers might judge me [for seeking help] ... I believe The Benny Fund Scholarship was created to reward individuals like myself who have dealt with adversity and it was meant to show me that I'm not alone in my struggles."
I say that it is our collective responsibility to advocate for mental health because those that suffer from a mental illness may not have the ability to understand what is happening to them nor do they have the ability to think in a "rational" manner. Additionally, doctors do not always know how to properly diagnose or treat the illness. It is our job to ask our friends and family if they are okay and to learn how to talk to someone when they are depressed. It is our job to drive them to an appointment or the hospital when they cannot get out of bed and have thoughts of suicide. It is our job become educated and to know the warning sings of a mental illness. It's our job to advocate for our children. It is our job to reach out.
So pour some ice water over your head for suicide prevention. Tell someone battling depression that they will beat it. And, when they ignore your phone call, show up at their house with a bowl of popcorn and a movie. Call your senator and congressperson and tell them you want the Mental Health in Schools Act passed. Ask your school's principal how and what they are teaching kids about mental illness. If they don't have an answer, show up at their office every week until it changes. Talk about what depression looks like at your dinner table. Give $10 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Glenn Close's Bring Change 2 Mind organization, or The Benny Fund. Tell a family that just lost someone to suicide that you are thinking of them and of the person that they lost, and use their name. If you have a cause that you are already passionate about then kudos, but if you don't then please think about advocating for mental health. I promise your advocacy will make a profound impact.
There are days that I'm so unbelievably angry at my brother, but selfishly it's because I miss him. I never have and never will blame him for his suicide. I understand that his suicide wasn't a selfish act just as no one's suicide is. As I write this now I sit on a plane traveling cross-country. At this time last year, I was doing the same thing, but last year the plane carried the remains of my brother. Mental illness doesn't discriminate, and even if it is "treatable," when you are in the depths of depression, hope is a laughable concept at best and the pain, seemingly endless, manifests itself as a physical form of torture. This is why we need you to reach out to us.
Every 13 minutes there is a Robin Williams. Someone who made their family laugh in the living room. Someone who gave a girl butterflies the first time that they were kissed. Someone who brought others a great amount of joy and love. Someone who suffered silently. While the world says rest in peace to Robin Williams, I offer up my peace to his family and also to every family that has lost someone to suicide. I hope that with his death the conversation continues and we start to see meaningful change related to mental illness and suicide prevention. Here I offer my peace to every parent who has lost their child, compassion to every child who has lost a parent, and hope to every person who is having suicidal thoughts. I give you my peace, empathy, compassion, and love, but more importantly my activism. To this large complex human conglomerate of a family, I say to you, again, that one suicide is too many.
Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email email@example.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.