Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
By Cara Anna
The trend toward a more public discussion of suicide attempts continues, and here's the latest example: The Huffington Post has teamed with TED for a weekend series on "ideas worth spreading," and this weekend featured the well-known TEDTalk by JD Schramm about his suicide attempt and his wish that we all speak more openly.
"My TEDTalk may have begun a conversation, but the challenge now is how to continue that dialogue," Schramm writes. The hundreds of comments are worth reading.
It's been a welcome surprise that most contributors to this blog have been able to write openly, including their names, but this is a good time to remind everyone that people who need to remain anonymous are just as welcome to write something for us.
This week's post is by Heather, who asks that we use her first name only. "You can put that I'm a psychiatric nurse and a mother to an awesome little boy," she says in an email. "If you want to include how long I've been dealing with depression and anxiety, I've dealt with depression since I was 10, and my anxiety really started before I can remember."
I am a psychiatric nurse. I can't give my name because of my work. I've been a psychiatric nurse for almost a year now. I've seen suicidal patients who have attempted suicide several times, those who have attempted it for the first time and those who have had the idea but have not gone through with it. I've also seen several patients who say they are suicidal to be able to be admitted because they are either homeless or don't like where they live. (If someone claims suicidal thoughts, it is required for us, in most cases, to admit that person). Many of our suicidal patients also have other issues such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety or PTSD. Sometimes the voice telling them to kill themselves, or the situation the person is in, just gets to be too much and they give in and try.
Since I've started this work, I've realized that there is a much greater need for suicide prevention. One of our adolescent patients actually hanged himself in the bathroom. He was 17. That was my first code blue. Luckily, he survived. I never realized how many teens go through what the adult patients go through. I guess I just thought that when someone started to hear voices, he or she would already be an adult. But I knew through my psychology classes that it was possible. Denial, maybe? I've also noticed how quickly the doctors go through patient rounds. A patient goes in and five to 10 minutes later, the patient comes out. How, in that little amount of time, can a doctor really listen to a patient and what the patient is experiencing? I understand that in several cases medication is necessary and adjustments need to be made, but I've also noticed in talking to my patients that most just want to be heard -- and I understand that firsthand.
I was 10 when I started becoming depressed. I had just moved to a new state, had no friends and didn't fit in very well. My brother fit in just fine. He was like the golden child. When I was 12, people started bullying me in school and started rumors about me that weren't true because I was different and didn't feel the need to conform to society's standards of normal. I was the only "goth" in high school. This led to more bullying and rumors. By the end of one school year, my best friend at the time and I had made a suicide pact. Obviously, we never went through with it. By 15 years old, I had started cutting. One day at school, I had had enough of the rumors and people being mean to me, so I went to the girls' bathroom to cry. I just needed a break from it for a while. The next day, there was another rumor that I had tried to kill myself in the girls' bathroom. Someone told the school counselor. That was how my parents found out that I had been cutting.
Now that I'm a mother, I still think about how to explain it to him if he sees one of my scars, even though they've faded some over the years. I'm sure I'll tell him some day. -- Heather, writing for What Happens Now?
My father threatened to have me committed, and I was basically on "suicide watch" for the rest of that school year. I learned to hide the cutting better. The few people now who know about it ask me why I did it. The only explanation I can give is that it was because I wanted to feel something other than the mental pain. Physical pain goes away eventually. I was also molested that year by my boyfriend. At 17, I was raped by another boyfriend. At 18, I was in an abusive relationship that left me with pain for the rest of my life. Throughout those years of depression, I often asked myself, "What if I just ended it now? Would anyone really miss me?"
I stopped cutting when I was about 18 or 19. I decided to stop because I realized I was only hurting myself, and many of the reasons I was doing it weren't worth hurting myself over because I'm worth more than that. I thought, "There has to be a better way to deal with this." Also, I started thinking about when I would have children. What would they think? How could I explain to my child, "Mommy used to hurt herself because she was depressed"? Now that I'm a mother, I still think about how to explain it to him if he sees one of my scars, even though they've faded some over the years. I'm sure I'll tell him some day.
Once I moved away from where I went to high school, I found more like-minded people and became a lot happier. I still deal with depression and anxiety, but I feel more hopeful and capable now. The doctor diagnosed me with PTSD. (It's not a diagnosis specifically for war veterans). I still have flashbacks and panic attacks when I see or hear certain triggers, but I'm on medication that levels things out, and I have people I can talk to.
When I was in my psychiatric nursing class, the topic of identifying psychiatric patients came up. One girl actually thought it should be required for psychiatric patients to have to tell other people that they had gotten psychiatric treatment. My best friend and I laughed and told each other we hoped the teacher didn't ask the psych patients in the class to raise their hands because both of ours would have gone up.
I hear a lot of psych patients get referred to as "those people." One day, maybe, people will understand that mental illness is a chemical imbalance, just like diabetes. Until then, we "those people" need to be there for each other.
I think that sometimes my patients can tell I'm one of "those people" by how understanding and nonjudgmental I am and by the fact that I don't treat them like I'm any better than them -- because I'm not. Just because we're taught in nursing school that we should be as nonjudgmental as possible doesn't mean all nurses actually come out being that way, as I'm sure everyone knows. Sometimes I explain to them that I have dealt with and am dealing with depression and anxiety, but I stay away from the details as much as possible, unless I feel it would benefit the person. I've told a few adolescent patients about my history of cutting, but only after they had opened up to me about what they were going through and we had a good rapport. I'm sure I probably wasn't supposed to, but I remember feeling like no one understood me when I was around their ages. I wanted them to know that someone DOES understand and that there are better ways of dealing with things.
Because of my role, I'm not able to go into detail. I usually just tell them, "Some of us understand more than you think we do." I've had several patients give me hugs and thank me for just listening to them. That is why I got into this field.
How can you tell whether the person taking care of you is one of "those people"? Pay attention to how they react when you tell them your story. Sometimes it's all in the eyes. Mostly, though, I think those of us who have had personal experience try to treat patients with more respect and like a "normal" person instead of treating them like they're "crazy." People who haven't gone through it don't understand what it's really like, and I think sometimes that either makes them afraid of psychiatric patients or more calloused towards them.
I've told a couple people I work with about my experience. It took a long time for me to tell anyone because that trust has to be built up first -- just like with anyone else. That's how I found out that a lot of people I work with have had experiences themselves or with loved ones dealing with mental illness. I think that's part of why we do what we do.
To anyone who is thinking about suicide, please get help. It doesn't make you weak. It makes you strong. And please know that even though some mental health professionals don't seem to care, there are those of us who really do care and who are willing to advocate for you, because a lot of us are one of "those people."
This was originally posted on What Happens Now? on AttemptSurvivors.com.
Cara Anna is the editor of What Happens Now?, a new site for people who've had suicide attempts or suicidal thinking, launched by the American Association of Suicidology. She's a New York-based journalist and former foreign correspondent, and she's a suicide attempt survivor herself.
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