September 5th to 11th is Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is a prevalent issue and one that is often preventable.
A few years ago, I was doing a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training session at my home gym. My partner was someone I was familiar with and I felt comfortable. We started our round of sparring and he grabbed a sleeve grip, causing my uniform sleeve to ride up my arm. He looked down at the scars that run lengthwise up and down my wrist. Without seeming to give it a thought, he asked “What…..d’you try to kill yourself or something?”
I looked at him and I said; “Yes.”
I could see the shock on his face. I could see all the gears turning in his head as he realized how gauche his question was. I could see his surprise at receiving an honest answer.
That’s because we don’t discuss suicide.
Because we can’t see suicidal thoughts, we often refuse to acknowledge them. We refuse to talk about suicide out loud, and most importantly, we refuse to allow people to be honest about what they experience. Someone’s brain chemistry doesn’t show itself on their skin, in their breathing or as a broken bone. And if it can’t be seen, it mustn’t be real. It is perceived as a choice, it is seen as a threat or cry for attention.
This is stigma.
I have survived three suicide attempts. My second attempt put me in a coma for almost a week. When I woke up, I lay in a hospital bed with wires and tubes coming out of me like an extension of my blood vessels. They reminded me of my self-harm scars; once again the ugliest parts of me were on display. My scars are like having my inside carved into my outside, everything is bared for the world to see. This felt the same.
I felt shame, I felt relief, and I felt fear. Shame at what I perceived to be weakness. I also felt relief at being alive but also fear at the same time – what if the emotional pain never stopped?
It would have been easy to believe this and to lose all hope, but all those scars, those wires and IVs, they were there because I was here to be healed. There was hope because people were here who cared about me. I counted them every day. Every morning I woke up and counted the IVs and tubes, taking inventory. I took comfort in explaining it to myself. “See all these tubes and wires? I’m sick. There is a reason the pain is unbearable. It is not because I am weak. I am sick.”
This is the paradigm that needs to shift. We need to stop seeing mental illness and suicidal thoughts as weakness, as a choice, as something people can simply power through. Suicide is a serious issue and suicide is often preventable. Only by allowing people like me to be honest about our experiences and our struggles can we reduce stigma and create a safe discourse surrounding suicide. And by creating that safe discourse we can reduce the barriers that stop people from speaking up and seeking the help they need and deserve.
For years I felt like sharing my pain and asking for help made me a burden. I felt like it made me weak. I thought for a long time that what I was experiencing was a flaw in character, a shortcoming, rather than a mental illness. I thought if I tried harder I could be better, different, normal. Part of the problem was that I was uneducated and uninformed when it comes to mental health and suicide and I wasn’t equipped with the language to explain or understand what I was going through.
I recovered from my suicide attempts. I began treatment for my mental illness and learned tools and skills to manage my suicidal thoughts. Several years later, I found myself tackling those suicidal thoughts again. I felt the hopelessness coming on, the shame and the desire not to be a burden. Through everything I had learned, through the growth I had undertaken, I now had a better understanding of what it means to ask for help. I asked someone I trusted to take me to the hospital. We drove to the closest emergency room and I explained, through tears, to the triage nurse that I needed emergency mental health support.
I was admitted and sent to the waiting room to eventually be called in by a physician. After I was cleared of any physical issues, I waited again, this time for the crisis team. I was eventually called into a bland room with a few armchairs. I sat in my hopelessness waiting for someone to appear. Eventually, the crisis team came. It was one nurse. Her face looked so familiar. She looked at me and I could see recognition in her eyes as well.
We had met before. She had been the nurse on the psychiatric ward when I was there years earlier. She had made my three weeks there bearable. She had shown me compassion and kindness and had been there to listen to me and talk to me for hours.
She asked me what was going on and I started talking. I explained the situation and the first thing she said to me was how proud of me she was. I was confused. Here I was battling suicidal thoughts, in the emergency room, crying my eyes out and she was proud of me. She told me how far I had come and how this situation would have played out very differently had it been just a few years prior. She commended me for having the strength to ask for help. She helped me find confidence and helped me celebrate the fact that this was a huge sign of growth. I was now able to ask for what I needed no matter how dark a place I was in. I left that emergency room feeling proud of myself too.
Asking for help is not weakness. It is actually a sign of great strength. Asking for help requires vulnerability and trust, it requires opening up to someone and being honest about what we are experiencing. It takes a lot of resilience to do that.
Combating stigma requires open and honest conversation. Suicide must become an appropriate topic of conversation, something to check in about, something to learn about. We need to be open in receiving people’s struggles, people’s pain, and people’s stories. And to be brave in sharing ours. Mental health is health and talking about suicide could save a life.