By Deanna Lee
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and that seems as good a time as any for me to break my year-long hibernation to shout this to the rooftops:
My child, Alex, was the most amazingly vibrant, feeling, loving, creative force you could imagine. Alex was full of life. Alex committed suicide last year, at the age of 14.
I am shouting out my pride to drown out the idea that mental illness is something to be ashamed of.
What I am ashamed of are profound shortcomings in awareness about this devastating illness among our politicians, our educators, our families, and our communities. Even those who know better, can wind up in a pretty bad place, our own awareness flung aside.
The stigma around mental illness defines and permeates the grief of a suicide survivor. It is a special sort of stigma, trapping the survivor in a howling vortex of self-condemnation and guilt. The very haziness of mental illness — is it really illness? if it was a deadly illness, why was treatment so indeterminate? — means I am subjected to a lifetime of, at worst, soul-crushing self-punishment, and at best, constant second-guessing self-doubt. Not a day (an hour?) goes by that a new, tender memory of Alex doesn’t morph into an assault. I seize. “There. That was it, the moment I dropped the ball. If only I had done x, or y, or z …”
With a child, the onus is as unbearable as the course was unchartable. The stigma of suicide starts with the stigma of mental illness.
Over the last three years, so many “peers” questioned Alex’s diagnosis. Depression and anxiety? This generation just isn’t tough enough; who doesn’t get bullied? Then, what’s up with your Goth child? And, er, what does it even mean to be Emo Pastel? That’s where you need to crack down.
More recently, it was how I could buy binders when Emma became Alex, imploring people to go with the flow of pronoun changes from she to they to he. Just 18 months later, I don’t even need to explain it. Did you see this March cover of Time? “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She.’” NPR this past week? “A New Generation Overthrows Gender.”
Who would have thought, 20 years ago, when mental health parity was first enacted into law, that today it would be gender identity awareness that has moved so far, so fast; leaving, it seems, progress on mental health awareness, and acceptance … in the dust? One means you are for equality, for civil, societal, and personal rights. Yet not only does the fight for mental health “parity” continue; how many even know what it means?
For a just-turned-13-year-old Emma, Robin Williams’ death was a wake-up call to how little awareness and knowledge was out there about depression, illness, and suicide. All of the coverage and all of the people trying to “understand” only highlighted how much misunderstanding there seemed to be. Coming shortly after Emma’s own first suicide attempt, this was the beginning of a desperate and heart-wrenching search.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month is Risky Business, which includes internet addiction that can exacerbate mental illness. Our youngest patients are, naturally, particularly susceptible. Like all teens, they are desperate to find themselves, to be seen and accepted for the difficulties they face. And we know where they go: online, with all the pitfalls and potential of the web.
Mental health awareness, my kid would tell you, must today include working with digital natives in their landscape. Alex, who saw at least six mental health professionals in the last two years alone, would test them by asking what they knew about Tumblr. “If they don’t even know what that is,” he’d say, “how can they get me?” Sadly, Alex found his own communities online with teens as far away as Iceland sharing stories of depression, cutting, and suicidal thoughts. On the one hand, he found support and friends, people to be honest with. But he also found challenges to join in the salve of self-harm, and suicide ideation. We can’t turn away: this is our culture (just check out the debate over Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why).
I’m speaking for both of us, my child and me, when I say, think today, and tomorrow, and the day after, about mental illness. You know someone who is suffering. Learn about it. Learn about its effect on families. Support advances in treatment and research, especially for the internet generation, which encompasses us all.
Alex knew his mental illness challenges were intensifying. He knew the illness wasn’t going away. What he didn’t know, what he couldn’t see, was how it would ever get better and how people would ever understand.
So help the next person to survive. Instead of stigma, help him/them/her to find community, acceptance, support, and hope. And help the suicide survivors, with knowledge, awareness, and understanding.