Have you ever been so depressed or overwhelmed with anxiety that you had the thought “I wish I could just stop existing?” The classic suicide questionnaire used in doctor’s offices to assess mental health includes some version of the concept of “the means and a plan,” but for many people it isn’t the thought of self harm that brings relief, but simply the thought of stopping the pain.
For many people this pain is unfathomable and deeply unfamiliar.
And for many others, it is not.
According to the CDC, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for adults in the US. For teenagers, it is the second.
One in five Americans will suffer from a mental health issue in a given year. Data collected from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicate that of those 20% of the population suffering, 4% will experience severe and life-interrupting symptoms.
All those numbers are interesting – or maybe they aren’t, I’ve never been much of a numbers gal myself – but what they can obscure is the reality that if you live in a 5-person household with a couple parents and a few kids, you are statistically likely to be sharing a kitchen with someone struggling with depression, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, schizophrenia, or some other ailment affecting the brain and the areas under its control (read: everything. When your brain isn’t working right, nothing is working right.)
I hate mental illness. I hate anxiety and I hate depression and I super hate postpartum depression. These diseases rob you of your ability to relate to your family. Of your ability to perform at work. Of your capacity for joy and wonder and compassion. And in the case of PPD, of precious moments of joy and wonder at the very beginning of one of the most important relationships of your life. The cost is staggering.
(For many people the cost is compounded by the difficulty in obtaining good treatment. Mental healthcare is expensive. For many people, prohibitively so. It is difficult to find a good provider. It is difficult to get scheduled with a good provider, with many counseling and psychiatric practices maintaining waitlists that stretch out over weeks or even months. But that is beyond the scope of this post.)
I have been fortunate to be surrounded by compassionate, intelligent, and deeply empathic friends and family who have walked alongside me during some of my darkest days of struggle with depression. It is because of this deep well of support that I feel a grave responsibility to my fellow sufferers to speak loudly, boldly, and publically on the matter.
If you or someone you love is battling mental illness right now, I want you to hear this: you are not crazy, things are not hopeless, and you are not alone.
There have been two high profile suicides in the US this week. In the devastation left in their wake, let us pause for a moment to pray for the repose of the souls of the departed and for the comfort of their families, and also take stock of who there might be in our own immediate circle of friends and loved ones in need of our attention and compassion and action. Not everyone who commits suicide has a mental illness, but many people who commit suicide do.
When I read the news about Kate Spade earlier this week I immediately thought of a friend who has been struggling. They share nothing in common other than their gender and their motherhood, but she sprang to mind as I scanned the sad headlines. Mental illness often requires more than compassion and communication and even prayer. But it very often receives not even these minimum attentions. (I do not seek here to minimize the profound power of prayer and God’s ability to heal. But He frequently heals through medicine – few people would treat cancer with prayer and encouragement alone, but frequently those suffering from depression or anxiety are assured that these alone are sufficient.)
We all know someone who is struggling with mental illness. But we might not know that they are struggling with mental illness.
I try to make it a point to ask my new mom friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers at Target how they are doing emotionally when I see them with a new baby in hand. Very often they’re doing great! And a few of them are not. And more than a couple have burst into tears and started pouring out their story to a stranger holding a box of Up and Up diapers, so relieved are they to have been asked the question.
It can feel scary to invite someone to share their burdens with you. But there is nothing scarier than walking through life just floating on the surface, never really knowing what other people are dealing with.
The devil loves mental illness as I’m sure he loves all things that cause people pain. But he seems to have a particular affinity for a disease process that is steeped in secrecy and shame and private suffering.
Shame and secrecy are Satan’s calling cards.
But bringing things out into the light and speaking truth over them? That’s when healing happens. Keeping them bottled up and private and buried beneath vows of “I will never” and “nobody can find out” are much more in line with the plans of the prince of this world.
Jesus wants our pain out front and center so He can work with it. So He can lessen the burden on our shoulders, shifting some of the weight to His own. So He can lead us to the right doctors, the right medicines, the right kinds of therapy and lifestyle changes so that healing can happen.
And healing – the total, miraculous, this-obstacle-has-been-removed kind of healing?
That doesn’t always happen. It just isn’t in the cards for everybody. God has a plan larger and longer than our mortal minds can fathom, and so yes, 14 year-olds die of cancer and babies are stillborn and husbands leave behind grieving families. But God does not will for us to suffer alone, separated from Him and from our brothers and sisters by shame and secrecy and lies. That kind of suffering, my friends,is actually a great working definition of Hell.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, or otherwise feeling despondent, do not be afraid to speak up. To speak life. To speak compassion and kindness and healing and hope over the circumstances and to persist with courage until you find someone who will hear you.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from over the years I’ve been writing publically about mental health who felt unheard or uncertain or ashamed after mustering up the courage to broach the subject with someone only to hear crickets or platitudes in response.
Keep speaking up and reaching out and believing that you are worthy of feeling whole and healthy.
Don’t let an uneducated comment or an inattentive doctor prevent you from seeking the help that you need. And if someone has the courage to share their secret pain with you? Don’t leave them hanging. As awkward or ill-equipped as you might feel, push through the social norms that leave so many of us us cripplingly lonely in this society of ours and help that friend or neighbor or brother who just bared their soul to you find the number of a good therapist. A doctor you’ve heard good things about from someone. Your pastor who is generally a wealth of resources on mental illness from spending hours and hours in the confessional and who has every major counseling practice within a 40-mile radius on speed dial.
You are not alone. Your beloved friend, estranged cousin, barely-familier coworker or your darling daughter are not alone. Be somebody’s Simon. Put your shoulder under that cross and help them get where they need to go when they’re just about ready to quit.
The world needs what you have to offer. But you must offer it!
St. Dymphna, St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us.