Let's talk about suicide

Discussing heavy emotional topics can be difficult but are necessary

Editor’s note: The following column deals with sensitive topics such as suicide, mental illness and other possibly upsetting material.

In April of this year, I admitted myself to the emergency room for suicidal thoughts. This was the culmination of several years of unchecked mental illness, isolation and perhaps an unknowable amount of other factors. That wasn’t so hard to talk about, was it?

World Suicide Prevention Day was September 10. In the United States as well as in most of the world, cultural squeamishness over discussing mental illness can lead to feelings of isolation. For someone going through a strong period of mental illness, isolation can significantly worsen the symptoms. Mental illness and social isolation are two of the leading causes for suicide, according to National Health Service.

So how can we as a society get over our collective discomfort about suicide or mental illness?

I’ll begin with my personal experience. This is purely my story and my take. Everyone who goes through mental illness has a different experience, and we need to remember that. Just because you’ve had a depressive episode doesn’t mean you understand mania or even someone else’s depressive episode.

The semester of my hospitalization was relatively normal by my standards. I rarely went to class, often too depressed to even leave my bed, let alone shower, eat and get ready for class. I always informed my professors of my mental illness and many were sympathetic, often offering accommodations and suggesting I seek out mental health services that may help me.

Unfortunately, I never took their suggestion.

At the time, I coped with my mental illness by joking around about it. Comedy is often one of the only coping mechanisms we are taught. Self-deprecating humor is often applauded as humble.

Some of my friends liked to join in on the jokes. This never sat well with me. I felt – and still feel – that someone joking about their own problems is a coping practice, while joking about someone else’s problems is unconstructive and damaging.

That being said, I would laugh along anyway. This was social inclusion, albeit a toxic one. And as the semester trotted on, I began to deteriorate.

I experienced my first bout of mania about halfway through the semester. I was up late at night, early in the morning. I didn’t feel the need to sleep, often staying up more than 24 hours with my longest stretch hitting around 38 hours. I had no fear of anything, thought school was unnecessary, had plans to abolish paper money and, on top of all that, I was having the occasional hallucination.

If the last paragraph made you worried, that’s alright.

There’s certainly a growing sense of acceptance surrounding depression and anxiety, as these are concepts a largely mentally healthy population can somewhat relate to without having experienced it. The healthy brain knows sadness and anxiousness. While this is a good first step, mental illnesses beyond the realm of the healthy brain’s experience – bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder – are frequently categorized by ableist terms like “crazy” or “psycho.”

When I went home for Easter break, my mom drove me to the hospital at my request. I had confided in a few friends about my suicidal thoughts and they all rightly urged me to go to the hospital. Some part of me knew the thoughts weren’t me; some part of me felt I could do something to stop the decline. Luckily, I listened to that part.

The hospital was a frightening experience that snapped me out of the state I was in for a bit. When I returned to Buffalo, I came back to the dingy house we were renting in University Heights -- the same environment that I was sick in. My roommate made a joke about me killing myself not even a week later.

I immediately sought counseling and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Sounds scary, right? Having a name for the disease, however, came with validation, restored self-respect and a plan to kick back.

To sum up this story, I’m pretty good now. I’m glad I went to the hospital and I’m glad to know what kind of people to surround myself with. In previous semesters, I struggled to regularly get my work done, both in classes and at The Spectrum. I had to step down from the newspaper several times over the last few years.

Since the start of this semester, I’ve been able to attend most of my classes, complete work with a clear head and be a part of The Spectrum fully. For the first time since coming to Buffalo, I live with a group of people I genuinely and fully trust. I feel a sense of well-being that I haven’t known for most of my life.

So how can we overcome our difficulties with talking about mental health? Simple: just start talking and listening.

The average person is likely aware of the seriousness of suicide. Too often, however, people don’t know what to say.

Someone who needs to talk about their mental health isn’t asking you to solve their problems. They just need you to listen, to care and to be there. They need validation, love and stability. They need you to be there. You should be there. Don’t assume you know what’s best for them. Listen and try to understand. Never speak down to them and never speak over them.

It’s time to listen to the people we’ve been ignoring.

As a culture, we need to know more about mental illness. Free, easy to understand sources like Wikipedia can be a good place to start, but more educational institutions need to start informing the general population of what to do.

While we wait for that to happen, you can start by reaching out to someone you know is going through a hard time; they likely would like an ear to talk to.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Dan McKeon is a copy editor and can be reached at dan.mckeon@ubspectrum.com