The newest studies show that suicide is on the rise in every corner of America. This month alone has been punctuated by the self inflicted deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two celebrities who appeared to have it all. Those tasked with helping us to maintain mental health are almost at a loss for words regarding what causes such incidents and how we may prevent them in the future. It is a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries and we still find ourselves scratching our heads in confusion and horror whenever we learn of someone ending their life in such a hopeless fashion. It is in our nature’s to want to help, but so often the incidents come as a surprise even to those closest to the victims.
I suppose that I have always been thankful that my mother’s bipolar disorder never lead to suicide because I know for certain that there were times when her depression was so deep that she was paralyzed inside a deep dark mood. She would close herself off from the world and sit in her house sleeping and crying and feeling frightened and hopeless. There was little that we were able to do to brighten her outlook other than getting her to professional help as quickly as possible. Sometimes that was made more difficult by the fact that her energy level was so low that she was unable to dress or care for herself and didn’t think that it was even possible to make the journey to the doctor’s office. We learned after multiple such episodes that it was critical to push her, because once she received the appropriate treatments and stayed under our watchful eyes she would soon enough return to a better state of mind.
Mama’s psychiatrists always worried about suicide even to the point of suggesting that we take away obvious means of harming herself whenever she was in such a state. They also insisted that we not leave her alone. During those times she would stay at one of our homes and we would take vacations from work to watch over her. We were told by more than one doctor that Mama’s unrelenting faith in God was no doubt a factor in preventing her from ever once making an attempt on her own life. In that regard we were fortunate.
Not every tortured soul who considers suicide is so apparently depressed as my mother was. Sometimes they even appear to be happy, successful and in love with life. There may be very close friends or family members who are more acquainted with their moods, but most of us see them as quirky or a bit erratic emotionally at most. Often they are so stoic and gifted at hiding their true feelings that we have little sense that they are in trouble. Those are the complex cases that most baffle us. We scratch our heads when we hear of their deaths wondering what clues we may have missed.
The brain and its chemistry is so intricate. We have yet to uncover its mysteries or ways to successfully control its problems. If only we knew more we might one day be able to eradicate much of the hurt and pain that mental illnesses inflict not just on the individuals who have them, but on their families as well. Even when every conceivable effort is made to deal rationally and medically with diseases of the mind, there are so many ways that things may go wrong. Attempting to address such issues with routine methods may or may not work. Since most incidents of depression, mania and such are chronic rather than acute it becomes a lifelong battle, and just when one method seems to be working something changes in the physiology that requires new approaches. In many ways our work with such diseases is still in the very experimental stage. There is so much that we still do not know, and while we ponder such questions the suicide rate is rising.
When famous people kill themselves it sheds a light on a problem that is rampant in our society, but all too often hidden from view. We brag about our children’s accomplishments, but we don’t like to mention when they suffer from depression. We hope so much that we can just treat their symptoms and move on to normalcy that we sometimes overlook signs that all is not as well as we may think. I know that in my mother’s case we foolishly hoped and prayed over and over again that we had once and for all conquered her illness. We were shocked and disappointed so many times when her symptoms reappeared, even though all logic should have taught us that our vigilance and her treatments would have to be a lifetime commitment.
I have a daughter who also suffers from depression. She learned much from watching her grandmother. She also knows the pitfalls of treatment for her own disease. The medications and therapies that she receives lift her mood so well that she becomes convinced that she is cured. She wants to abandon the drugs that cause her to gain weight and to endure other uncomfortable side effects. She doesn’t like the idea of being part of a chemistry experiment. So even with her own medical training and the history of our family she does what so many persons with a mental illness do. She stops her treatments in the hopes that she doesn’t really need them anymore. When her symptoms return she realizes the mistake she has made and returns to a lifestyle that she is certain few would understand. Luckily she has a family who supports her and understands the dangers associated with her depression.
As a society we desperately need to come to grips with all forms of mental illness. They are real and not just the product of someone’s imagination. They are frightening to those who have them and those who love someone who has them. As a whole the mentally ill are treated badly. We tend to run away from them rather than support them. We make them feel isolated and misunderstood. When we speak of their difficulties there is a tendency by those unfamiliar with such illnesses to suggest that they are somehow just indulging in selfish behaviors. We often push them to “get a grip.” They hide their pain in the shadows and now and again they simply do not have the energy to continue to deal with the confusion that they feel.
I’m of the mind that mental illness is perhaps the biggest problem in our society today. I would love to see us place as much enthusiasm and dedication to conquering diseases fo the mind as we did for reaching the moon. It would be go grand to gather the greatest minds in a generously funded program whose sole purpose is to conquer mental illness. I believe that if we unlock the means of treating such illnesses many of our woes will evaporate. We must make heroes of those who work to repair the mind. Until we do we will continue to see mass shootings, criminal behaviors, addictions, and suicides. It should be clear that mental illness is the frontier that we most need to explore and understand.