No one’s prepared to hear a close friend say this over the telephone:
“I recently tried to kill myself.”
Anita, a close friend of mine, told me this a number of years ago. She stated so matter-of-factly, nonchalant, and to the point, because that was her reality. A close friend of mine had contemplated, and tried, ending her own life.
The wind was punched out of me. Worse, it’s not the only time or only friend. And for many of us, won’t be the last.
Mental health has slowly seeped into the national conversation. Since Psychology and several amazing branches of study have arisen out of the nineteenth century, the conversation regarding mental health has gained a little traction. Emphasis on little.
Mental illness is a dreaded, silent and shifty, Hydra. It manifests and creeps in so many ways, and if you’re lucky enough to not have any mental health issues, chances are its hand works on someone close to you.
And that’s why we need to talk about it.
Not as this ancient monster or esoteric concept, but what mental illness is:
Anxiety. OCD. Schizophrenia. Panic. Social Anxiety. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dementia.
At a national level, and at a church level, a stigma has kept our discussion on mental health quiet.
Some have said, “You’re just choosing to feel sad.”
Or, “I heard that’’s not even real.”
Or, “You’re faking to get sympathy.”
Or maybe the worst, “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Well, let’s be clear: There is nothing wrong with you. You are normal. People have anxiety and PTSD and get Panic attacks and deal with depression on a daily basis. People are sometimes born with these. People sometimes experience traumas. Remember, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk mental health—people. They are around you. Other times, it is you. And its OK.
See, even in our Christian community, where we talk about helping the poor, the downtrodden (Bible’s language for depression), we are failing to touch and wrestle with mental illness as if it has cooties. It doesn’t’ have cooties. What it does have is dire consequences.
About two years ago, I finally thought I might have anxiety and depression, might. I found my thoughts heightened around groups of people (social anxiety), and going into winter I found my brain drifting downward and feeling tired and a little afraid to be alone in the dark (seasonal depression). Feelings are hard to put into words. Language is only one way we have to communicate what is happening in our brains. Some might not understand what I’m trying to say. Some of you know all too well.
Because I read obsessively (a coping mechanism) and am fascinated by psychology, I was clued into what was happening in my head.
Yet, it still took me until this last year and an unsettling thunderstorm to finally reach out to a friend, ask for a therapist recommendation, and book an appointment. That’s the stigma. It keeps people from seeking professional help for a long time. And some never do.
Chris Gethard, actor and comedian, tells the story about is bouts with suicidal thoughts and ongoing depression in his HBO, stand up special, Career Suicide. Over the course of an hour and a half, Gethard relates how he first tried to end his life. He explains how he had a happy family and great childhood but sometimes people just are depressed. After an instance where he tired to take his own life, he sought help and started taking medication.
The message of Gethard’s special: find people who will listen. He recounts moving to California and calling his doctor when his prescription ran out. Then the real tragedy—his doctor never answered his calls. Finally, when his doctor did answer, he tells Gethard he’s no longer his doctor, due to the papers Gethard signed when he first went into treatment, stating if Gethard were away for a certain period of time, he was no longer responsible for treatment.
Gethard recalls the conversation, “If you say I signed that piece of paper. I’m sure I did. I’m certain you’re correct about that. But please, just keep in mind, the first day I saw you, I signed a lot of pieces of paper. I was also twenty-two years old. I was suicidal. And I was terrified . . . and you chose to not pick up the phone?”
Many out there wonder who will pick up the phone for them. I hope there’s more thinking about how they can pick up the phone for others.
But step one has to be picking up the phone.
To destigmatize mental illness we need to talk about it. In our communities. In our church. About what it really means to live with a mental illness.
No one is weak if they need medication.
No one is weak if they need to talk to a professional.
No one is weak if they need help.
You’re fight is real. And you are brave and courageous and strong. Period.
If you need help—please reach out. Reach out to a close friend who will not judge you. Reach out to a church leader who accepts you in grace and love. Call a professional you can trust and will treat you, not make you feel worse.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
I feel its no mistake those are listed first.
Years later, after his doctor didn’t pick up the phone, Gethard found himself in another manic state. He didn’t know what to do because the thoughts, of not going on, came back. He called his new therapist, a woman he names as Barb. He describes her as not the most professional therapist. When she answers his call, she asks him what is wrong. Gethard does his best to explain the state he’s in. She listens, then tells him he’s fine. She’ll see him on Thursday—he can make it until Thursday. At this point in the special, he throws up his hands and yells at the audience, “That’s not what you’re supposed to say!”
Gethard comes back again and again about how Barb isn’t the most “correct” therapist, yet juxtaposed with his first doctor he explains what mattered most:
“Be like Barb. She really, always tries to do what’s right. And when it came down to it . . . she chose to pick up the phone.”