Mental Health Is More Than Suicide.

I have mental illness, but I don’t want to kill myself.

Why is the general public so insensitive to my experience, but when someone commits suicide, all of a sudden it’s a massive outcry for mental health reform?

This is not a contest or a commentary on “not fair”…but it kind of is in the sense that my mental health matters and it shouldn’t involve taking my own life to get some attention, recognition and reform.

Recently, an apparent student suicide at University of Toronto led to a large-scale public protest regarding better mental health opportunities for students, which is valid and essential, however, the conversation (on social media, instigated by the CBC), quickly shifted to pressuring the University to acknowledge the death as a suicide.

So I asked myself (then posted to social), why it would be the University’s obligation to do so? The issue is better mental health care, but it seems that society wants to define the results of ineffective care using only suicide. What about the people who are suffering with diagnosed (and un-diagnosed) schizophrenia, BPD, ADHD, bipolar, agoraphobia, depression, and the range of mental illnesses, personality disorders and anxiety that are also a major part of the mental health spectrum?

I guess we don’t matter because people like us are still alive, not causing an uncomfortable contradiction to society’s view on what’s “really terrible” and we have/can/will, with help, manage to “get over it”, right?

WRONG.

It’s highly controversial to present the idea that suicide is the easy way out, but I’m going to assert that it absolutely is, so let me explain further before I’m bound to and burned at the stake:

When the pain is so terrible that you cannot understand wanting to live anymore, taking your own life is a difficult decision (I have depression and I have thought about it), and ending my life would end the suffering. This, of course, is my personal opinion regarding the potential of an after-life, but, for the sake of this piece, I’ll remain non-partisan when it comes to religious beliefs, and operate on a here & now mentality.

Taking your own life ends living with the illness. Simple.

It embodies the Right to Die movement in that, those who have serious physical illnesses are permitted to consider dying of their own volition, so I see suicide for serious mental health issues as being the same.

As many would argue, those with mental health concerns aren’t always in “their right mind” and it would be dangerous to allow them that decision. But many terminally-ill patients who are dealing with mental health issues as a result of their physical illness aren’t in “their right mind” either, which is why the legislation requires lengthy consultation with doctors.

But because there are so many stipulations in Canada’s Medical assistance in dying guidelines, that appear discriminatory toward those with mental illness, like “be at a point where your natural death has become reasonably foreseeable,” then contradicted by, “You do not need to have a fatal or terminal condition to be eligible for medical assistance in dying,” it makes things really confusing and offers a loophole for legislators to prevent those with mental illness from getting help, so it’s much easier to just do it on their own.

In addition, two other clauses for consideration: “be in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed,” and, “experience unbearable physical or mental suffering from your illness, disease, disability or state of decline that cannot be relieved under conditions that you consider acceptable,” are not seen as relevant to those of us with mental health because, through medication, depression and other recognized mental illnesses and disabilities are [apparently] reversible. But what isn’t being considered here is our quality of life.  

I don’t consider being medicated for the rest of my life as acceptable. I don’t consider the difficulty of baring my soul in therapy every week acceptable. I don’t consider being involuntarily hospitalized, forcibly kept away from my friends, family and work, to be acceptable. I wouldn’t want to live that way, so ending it all through death makes sense.

This is where I circle back to how suicide gets so much attention from the public, but not the causes that lead up to it, which is the crucial aspect of suicide prevention. Duh.

It’s ironic that the lack of acknowledgement from society of problematic mental health concerns is what, actually, leads to the feelings of sadness, loneliness and frustration, that motivate suicide in the first place.

The constant “You’ll get better, you just need to adjust your way of thinking,” or, “It’s not that bad, you should be happy that you have such a good life and you’re not in a wheelchair,” (?*%!@?), or “Take these pills every day and lead a life of pharmaceutically-induced survival, all the while knowing that it’s fake and, underneath, you’re really a depressed, abnormal individual.”

In the case with University of Toronto, declaring “suicide” isn’t relevant unless it’s for PR reasons, i.e. “A student killed themselves here and, as a result, we are going to improve mental health access,” but to do it in order to satiate the public’s nosiness and craving for, and creation of, controversy, is inappropriate and unnecessary. I have no idea how it would help, instead, it may motivate other students to take similar action.

“Scientific evidence from numerous natural experiments worldwide demonstrates that media reporting of suicide can sometimes result in contagion, with increased suicide rates across a population.”

Canadian Psychiatric Association

Covering a suicide without discussion of background information makes people feel more comfortable because the person is gone and it can be easily labeled as depression; we don’t have to hear the reasons why because that person is gone now and it’s a matter of speculation that quickly fades into history once the next big story makes headlines.

Can you imagine how squeamish society would be to hear the actual details of what led to one’s suicide? They don’t want that mess; they want the neatly-packaged ‘dead-and-gone’ presentation that can swiftly be attributed to a generalized diagnosis of “depression” without details like “abusive parents” “academic pressure” “lack of community support” “medical ignorance” “feelings of self-hatred” “anger toward society” and more.

“When reports do occur, either about a specific person or the issue of suicide in general, the paper [Media Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide] recommends the use of appropriate language, that efforts be made to reduce stigma around mental disorders, and to provide information about alternatives to suicide. Links to pertinent resources for people contemplating suicide, such as crisis hotlines, should also be provided.”

Links are great but an inadequate, and often ineffective, solution. Posted all over the internet and around Toronto are crisis help lines, mental health walk-in clinics and accessible hospitals, but they didn’t help this recently deceased student.

Those with mental illness who are contemplating suicide feel like there isn’t any hope because we’ve been ignored, medically and personally (or else we’d be doing much better, not wanting to die), so calling a 1-800 number to be misunderstood, once again, won’t necessarily help. It’s a frustration that can’t be dealt with logically, using words and methods that make sense to those who are capable of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but not to those of us who live in complete darkness, where a tiny point of light in the distance quickly disappears as you try to walk toward it.

We need to get an idea of where we are by hearing the voices and experiences of others who are there with us, also surrounded by the dark, so that we know we’re not alone.

As far as the popular buzzword sentence, “reducing the stigma” goes, having a doctor/therapist with no lived experience clinically ramble on about ways to not kill yourself can be hugely ineffective. They don’t know us, and each of us is different. Many of us have had bad experiences with doctors and therapists, so we don’t put our trust into their opinions. It is through sharing our own experiences among each other that we can help. Media and medical professionals need to understand this and begin to rely on those of us who have been through it to help those that are going through it. Let us be your experts.

The CPA paper, under the “Conclusions & Future Directions” heading says: “Similarly, reporting that describes people overcoming suicidal crises and finding other solutions may encourage help seeking and more adaptive coping strategies.”

I LIVE with mental illness. The everyday struggle that I and others like me face is serious. It’s painful. It’s hopeless, yet we keep moving forward, despite wanting it all to end. It’s far from easy, in fact, it’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done because it’s a constant, daily routine of having to acknowledge my feelings, talk myself down from the anger, anxiety and sadness by pulling out random positives from my past, some of which lead to triggering, i.e. “I will continue to live because I have a great child that I’m responsible for, who I love and care about very much, but am I a good mother? Does my illness affect her where she’ll hate me because I’ve messed up her life because of my own problems? Maybe it’s best to leave this world now before I cause too much damage.” Once I manage to get out of that spiral, I have to hold onto the positive all day and not fall back into the sadness and frustration.

It’s like holding water in your hand.

The necessity for interjection from a professional (and society) is at that time, not after I’ve taken my own life and everyone can lament “She was such a nice person and had so much to live for, but she was always a little sad and went through some hard times. Tsk tsk, suicide is terrible.”

But how do we possibly respond to someone’s non-verbalized thoughts?

We talk about the factors leading up to suicide, not just the suicidal ending, itself. We hold media accountable for reporting the WHOLE story and not just the sensationalized aspects, like how they killed themselves and who’s to blame, but expect journalists to do their work and investigate the “why” (because it is there if they look hard enough). As suggested, interview people who are living with mental health concerns that have driven them to suicidal thoughts or even action.

Through my website and social media participation, I am trying to do this; to create solidarity among others who experience anger, depression, anxiety and more, so that they know they aren’t alone and that what they’re going through is OK. That, perhaps, a sentence that I’ve written will help them to feel better and get through another day, then another, and another. That my stories are real, just like theirs.

We must educate doctors and other medical professionals on signs to look for regarding depression, not just typical outward ones like disheveled appearances and lack of showering, or asking someone if they’ve thought about suicide, to which many who have will probably respond with an emphatic “no” for fear of public perception, forced, involuntary treatment or the inability to self-acknowledge.

We must create a safe space to encourage those of us with lived experience to share it with others. We become the experts and work in tandem with psychological/psychiatric medical professionals and with media in a collaborative effort to actually inform and reduce the stigma.

There are people who will want to kill themselves, and, as upsetting as it can be for those still alive, it’s an aspect of being human. 

It is up to those of us left to fight for awareness and actual understanding as to why this happened, and encourage our society to acknowledge more than just the end result. It is about respecting the decision of the deceased and moving ahead with the motivation to effect appropriate change so that their death was not in vain.  

One thought on “Mental Health Is More Than Suicide.

  1. This is an amazing post. You cover my own thoughts about suicide and the MH care system so concisely. There are problems from the ground up & the people who could actually help to improve the system, the “service users,” are continually told we don’t know what’s best for us. Nothing will ever change if we are never heard.

    Also this, “We need to get an idea of where we are by hearing the voices and experiences of others who are there with us, also surrounded by the dark, so that we know we’re not alone” was so beautiful and accurate of my own experience. My peers were a huge part of my recovery (learning to live with, not cure) when MH professionals failed me a million times over.

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