What Suicide Means to a Person with Mental Illness
This post was submitted to the 100 Voices for Suicide Prevention campaign by Gabe Howard. Gabe is a keynote speaker, award-winning activist, mental illness blogger and writer, as well a person living with severe bipolar and anxiety disorders. In the past ten years, he has made it his mission to put a face on mental illness that isn’t stereotypical. Society often sees people living with mental illness at their worst and he works to add a more balanced view to the conversation. Gabe is frequently irreverent, often too loud, and always unpredictable, but anyone who knows him will tell you that life would be so boring without him. You can connect with Gabe on Twitter, Facebook and his website.
I have attended too many funerals of people who died by suicide. One funeral would be too many, and I am well into double digits. My position as a speaker, writer, and mental illness activist brings me into direct contact with the worst case scenario, and serves as a startling reminder of why I do what I do.
People see suicide in many different ways. Some see it as a choice, some as the selfish act of an uncaring person, and some see it as dying from a miserable illness. I am in the last group, seeing mental illness as a disease that robs a person of his or her ability to make rational decisions.
I once had a mother e-mail me to express the anger she felt at her son for choosing to take his life. Her feelings, unfortunately, are common. I encourage you to read her letter as well as my response: Ask Me Anything: Mental Illness Questions about Suicide.
The old adage, “birds of a feather flock together,” has more meaning than most people realize. Sure, people who like art will naturally navigate toward others who like art, but in the absence of actual flocking, birds of a feather are watching each other.
How Does a Person with Mental Illness See Suicide?
Let’s take the U.S. military as an example. Soldiers feel a strong bond with other soldiers. It doesn’t matter how far removed they are from a situation or how long ago they were soldiers, when they hear about the death of a fellow soldier while on active duty, it affects them differently. It doesn’t matter whether they knew the person; they have a connection with them. They understand them. They feel, on many levels, that they are alike. They are “brothers and sisters in arms.”
When someone dies by suicide, a chain reaction occurs in most people who also have mental illness. First, the news hits very close to home. Deep down, we know our illness may cause death. After all, more people die by suicide than in car accidents. But, it won’t happen to us; we’ll be fine. It is other people – sicker people – who suffer this consequence. That belief, however make-believe it always was, comes crashing down around us.
Second, we start to see the anger, resentment, blame, and other emotions society has toward people who die by suicide. We can’t help but internalize those emotions. If we were to die by suicide, would our family and friends hate us, too? Are we so meaningless as a people that it is okay to blame us for our own deaths?
Third, in many cases, we have the minority view of the entire situation. We are in a unique position, which enables us to see things from a different perspective. As people discuss the suicide, they often focus on why they did it or how they could have done this to their loved ones.
Those questions are meaningless to us because we are laser focused on the dark place they were in. With our own emotions raw, we watch how people react and are reminded just how misunderstood we are. This is an excellent example of a misalignment between what actually happened and what people think happened.
More than anything, we face the terrifying reality that someone with whom we have a strong connection has lost the battle. They succumbed to the idea that there was nothing left, they wouldn’t be missed, and this was the only way to escape their suffering.
As everyone else wonders what the person was thinking, we are terrified we will someday find out.