I read a terrific article this morning in Huffington Post, Robin Williams, Connectedness and the Need to End the Stigma Around Mental Illness.
Among the startling information was this sad fact: "...even as many other causes of death are in decline, the rate of suicide is rising. This is especially true among the middle-aged. From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate for those aged 35 to 64 rose by more than 28 percent. By 2009 there were more deaths by suicide than from car crashes."
I remember in the training period before my brother went to Iraq, he had weekly meetings with a counselor, and I think there were meetings while he was there, too. The Army was very concerned about suicide, as they should have been, and all the counseling was mandatory, for everyone. The article estimates that 22 vets kill themselves every day and almost 20% of suicides are veterans, even though they are only 10% of the population.
Stress has to be the root cause. Living in a war zone, constantly afraid for your life, must be the most stressful thing a human can endure. My brother spent a year in Iraq and said it took him a full year after returning home before he could even find a new normal.
A friend and fellow blogger, mom to a 20 year old son in the Air Force, watched him kill himself right in front of her, after they had an argument. She still mourns deeply and yet has been able to do constructive things like urge people to make organ donations. Her son's death meant life to others because of his donations.
ENDING THE STIGMA
The only good thing about a highly public suicide like that of Robin Williams is that it started a conversation about suicide, and by extension about depression and mental illness.
What I liked so much about the Huffpost article is that it talks about connectedness as a way to prevent suicide. We've got to connect with each other, and we've got to connect with mental health professionals.
We've also got to acknowledge that mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Depression can cause physical illness, and vice versa.
"...one of the established so-called "protective factors" against suicide is what is known as "connectedness." The CDC, which says connectedness has "direct relevance for prevention," defines it as "the degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated, or shares resources with other persons or groups."
"Since suicide is the ultimate act of disconnection -- from society, from community, from friends and family -- it's not surprising that connection is a powerful roadblock to suicide. We're creatures of connection. We're hardwired for it."
Yet connecting to each other can be so difficult. We're all busy. We're all scheduled to the nth degree. It's hard for me to find time to see friends for lunch every 6 months, never mind anything more regular.
We text. We Tweet. We Facebook. We need to look in each other's eyes, though.
We need to teach children and teenagers to talk about their feelings. We need to teach them to express themselves in an atmosphere where they aren't judged. Some churches have youth groups where this takes place, but many kids can't or won't go to such groups.
Teenagers are a tough group to motivate, the boys especially. I remember some very intense discussions at an Episcopal retreat weekend called Happening, when I was 16 years old. Discussing feelings and masks and coping -- lots of great information and affirmations that weekend. I wish my son had such a group.
I wish I could offer some insights or surefire solutions to all this but I can't. However, I just want to point out a couple of things.
Change is possible. I never thought in my lifetime I'd see a black president, or legal gay marriage, or banking without an actual bank building. I am old enough to be in awe of the rapid changes in our society. SO...
I want to see the stigma around mental illness REMOVED. I want Robin's death to have a totally wonderful outcome, I want it to be a signpost. Ten years from now, I want to be able to remember it and say wow, when Robin died, that's when we [as a nation, as a society] started talking about Depression and mental illness and actually DOING something, not hiding it.
When I was a kid, my parents talked about people who saw psychologists or psychiatrists in hushed tones, as objects of pity, folks to avoid. Their parents had taught them that. They tried to pass it along, the perpetuation of the stigma -- not out of meanness or evil just because that's what they learned.
I'd like to see the word "crazy" because as unacceptable as the N word, in polite society. Heck, in ALL society.
I'd like to see every middle school and high school offer all kids group therapy, and individual counseling if requested.
I'd like to see companies offer employees monthly Mental Health Days - days off to spend with family and/or friends, or just relaxing and doing something fun.
Most of all, I want to be part of the conversation.
If you have a friend or family member that is depressed, take them to lunch or dinner. Talk to them. Encourage them to share feelings. There aren't a lot of mental health professionals available to many of us, not covered by insurance, so let's minister to each other. Let's listen, and not judge.
Let's TALK about what's wrong.
Let's look into each other's eyes, and not be afraid if they are full of tears.
Let's LOVE each other.
If we can, then Robin's death and so many of the recent deaths of our vets will have sparked something amazing, something divine.