By Claudia Youakim
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death overall in the U.S.— and 90% of people who die by suicide may have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition, according to interviews with family, friends and medical professionals.
These statistics are staggering and they, along with my personal experience with suicide loss, have inspired me to think about how our cultural understanding and advocacy around mental health must change.
Perhaps you’ve heard a story of a boy or girl who cleaned out their school locker because they were determined to take their own life that day. But, as the story goes, a friend helped them carry their belongings and that friend saved them from hurting themselves or ending their life.
This story is quite inaccurate as it assumes an easy fix can solve a mental health problem, it misrepresents the severity of mental illness, and it minimizes the available resources that can help someone who is suffering from thoughts of suicide. Most notably, the story never addresses or resolves the reason for the student’s suicidal ideation — which was triggered by bullying in school. This is one of many possible journeys and only one of many outcomes. Mental health and people are much more complex.
While that story does highlight the power of support, it does not reflect many people’s reality as they grapple with serious mental illness and suicidal ideation. The “savior culture” is a reductionist approach. It does not serve anyone who needs mental health support, nor does it allow for us to imagine the range of possibilities that in fact do exist for getting someone the help they need — based on what they are willing to access or what they have access to. Assuming the smallest of actions will “solve the problem” discounts the struggle of a person who suffers day in, day out, and it limits the options a loved one can take to offer help to someone with a serious mental illness.
Major depression, for instance, does not necessarily look like this school-boy story; it’s more than one bad day, and it takes more than a kind gesture to tackle. And, even further, there are a range of lived experiences that fall under what major depression can look like for someone — so the level of severity is not fixed, just as there are no fixed solutions — this makes mental health professionals and various resources essential in the process.
When I lost two dear people to suicide within a short time frame, my friend Mike and my cousin Lou, I started thinking about mental health more than ever before. I recalled the story about the student. I asked myself what I could have done to prevent their deaths. I recounted what I was doing during their final steps. The record played over countless times in my head as I thought about how they might have been here “if only” I had done something differently.
What I’ve learned since then is this self-blame simply discounted every effort they made (and efforts also made by others) to try to address their mental health and reality every day. We need to stop that record from playing — it discounts the seriousness of the matter at hand and does not fully appreciate the struggle and pain that someone with mental illness is confronting and addressing every day.
It also made me reflect on what I could do moving forward to raise awareness, to seek what resources are available and how we can better access and share them with others. I thought about how we might better understand people’s journeys with mental illness, and our own, as friends and family, who want to help them in the process.
According to the CDC, suicide rates increased 30% between 2000-2018, with non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaskan Native men, and non-Hispanic white men, having some of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. Middle aged adults (aged 35-64) also fall among the most vulnerable groups. And although we know these trends — no one whose life ended by suicide is simply a statistic.
So, how can we humanize who we are addressing and make sure that people have proper access to mental health care? How can we use what we know to change how we talk about mental health? How can changing the narrative impact the reality?
Open dialogue is only helpful if we can share the truth. We can start talking about the reality of depression as it is, a legitimate medical condition that causes sadness, loss of interest and potentially feeling as if life is not worth living. It is a condition, not a weakness, that typically requires long-term mental health treatment.
When it comes to “our role” in changing the reality on suicide and mental health, you can sign up and advocate for structural changes and greater support for mental health access.
As for our own personal interactions with someone who needs or is seeking mental health assistance, here are some suggestions:
If you or someone you know needs support, there are plenty of professional resources that would help you, including NAMI, SMI Advisor and others. The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health is also a wonderful resource that will help you see that you are not alone.
I write this article in loving memory of my friend Michael J. “Mike” Malinowski and my cousin Lutfi “Lou” Mukhar. Each were beloved sons, brothers, friends, uncles, nephews, cousins and more. I could still hear Mike’s laughter echo in my ear even years after his departure from this earth. And I will never forget the way Lou would endearingly refer to me as “cousin.”
Dr. Claudia Youakim is a sociologist and DEI expert who focuses on creating inclusive systems through evidence-based research and policy reform. She is a Chicago native who currently resides in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @cyou824
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