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On a characteristically sunny Southern California day in October 2012, my husband, Bill, walked onto the MetroLink tracks near our Dana Point home, spread his arms wide, and completed suicide as he was struck by the oncoming train.
Bill was depressed. He was anxious. He struggled with substance abuse, steroid use, and a host of other “typical” symptoms of mental illness.
But Bill was also a victim.
He bought into the widespread stigma about mental illness that plagues our society today. He was a middle-aged, white man with the strength to move mountains. In fact, Bill was a body builder and gym owner. He was the picture of physical health. But inside, Bill was dying. And the help he needed required him to admit the impossible—that he couldn’t control his brain.
Bill’s shame wasn’t an anomaly in 2012, just as it isn’t today. In fact, Mental Illness Policy Org. reports that half of Americans suffering from severe psychiatric disorders are receiving no treatment—that’s as many as 3.5 million individuals.
While there’s no one reason to explain this issue, I know what held Bill back. It wasn’t that he had no one begging him to get help—I was. It wasn’t even that he didn’t recognize the symptoms in himself—he did.
For Bill, it was the shame associated with society’s mental health stigma that kept him from the saving arms of treatment. It was the embarrassment and denial that comes with admitting to be what society calls “broken.”
Ending the Stigma
May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, a time in which we can offer life-saving information to those suffering from mental illness. Whether you or a family member are experiencing mental health issues, you can play a big role in helping those around you who may be by helping to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.
After Bill’s suicide, I was wracked with the guilt of knowing I hadn’t done enough. While that was largely due to my personal grieving process, there are many things I now know that I wish I’d known then.
For example, I knew Bill needed help, but I didn’t know just how urgent the situation was. I didn’t know that he was at a higher risk for suicide because he knew three people who had died that way, or because he had two grandmothers who had attempted it. I didn’t know that his past use of steroids and current use of anxiety medications were exacerbating his illness. I didn’t even realize his frequent talk of death and suicide was a red flag that he had a plan in place.
I say this not to wallow in my own failings, but to underscore that the best way for us to end the stigma and help those we love is to learn everything we can about mental illness.
Politics, religion, and…mental illness? While mental health issues might feel personal or taboo, talking about them can save lives—yours or that of someone you love. Being open about your own struggles—something as simple as telling a friend what you learned from your therapist—can open the door to empathy and understanding. If you read or overhear someone perpetuating a mental health stigma, kindly share your knowledge. Be cautious not to use mental health conditions as insults or jokes—you wouldn’t joke about or accuse someone who’s made the “poor decision” to have cancer, after all.
If you think you can’t relate to someone suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, you’re probably right. That’s because you’re experiencing life with a brain that isn’t lying to you.
Once you get to know someone who is mentally ill, you’ll start to understand that this is a path no one in their right mind would choose—and that’s the key right there. Rather than avoiding homeless people on the street, talk to them. Look in their eyes and listen to their story. Talk to friends and family members who suffer from depression, anxiety, or a host of other issues about the challenges they face on a daily basis. Seek understanding, and empathy will grow with it.
A month isn’t enough time to change the way society has stigmatized mental illness, but we can all make a difference in our respective circles—circles that undoubtedly include someone who’s suffering.