Content warning: this post deals with suicide. If you need help, 24-hour crisis support is available via Lifeline. Please call 13 11 14.
The news spread quickly. Two youth from the local high school had died over the weekend. “They committed suicide” were the words I heard to explain the tragic loss of two young people, who had their entire lives ahead of them.
It is common to hear those two words together — commit and suicide. I cringe when I hear it. They didn’t commit a crime. They died by suicide.
I am a survivor of suicide loss. After my son’s death, I was helpless to respond to the painful words that were spoken in hushed tones around me. “It was a selfish act.” “Didn’t you see the signs?” “Are they in heaven?” “I wonder what went wrong in the family?” I was unable to formulate responses to these false beliefs. I didn’t even know they were false. I just knew they held me hostage under a grief so powerful I could hardly breathe.
In short bursts of time when I could focus, I read. Books like I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help, The Burden of Sympathy – how families cope with mental illness or Man’s Search for Meaning, helped me understand the suffering my son endured was so deep that he would take his own life.
“Schizophrenia with delusional behaviors,” the doctor had said. Ryan was diagnosed with mental illness nine months before he died. In hindsight, I had seen signs, but I didn’t know they were signs of mental illness. I never even considered mental illness was real. I just hoped he’d outgrow the anxiety, fear and worry that had insinuated themselves into his psyche. Sleeping too much, not wanting to go to school, avoiding social situations, becoming more isolated and failing grades were what I had dismissed as “normal” adolescence.
I am not alone. Sadly, I hear stories of other parents who thought their child would outgrow these behaviors, too. When behaviors such as these change someone’s personality, it could signal a growing mental illness.
I stopped really seeing my son because I thought I knew him by heart. I dismissed his complaints and his tears. I didn’t reach out to help him find his way because I was lost too.
Parents cannot look inside a child’s head to see what dark thoughts may be present, thoughts of worthlessness, of being a burden or thoughts of death. These are thoughts they can’t shake. Too ashamed to speak them aloud, our children suffer. To share these with another person they fear judgment, advice giving and not being taken seriously, or worse, feeling weak and powerless.
Without knowledge of mental illness as an actual brain illness, they languish. Without treatment, the illness can worsen over time and become a full blown chronic illness that is more difficult to treat or results in suicide. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental illness.