May is Mental Health Awareness month. To mark the occasion, I will be blogging about mental illness. The stigma associated with mental illness still persists. The only way to get rid of this stigma is through awareness and education. Because of this stigma, many people are too ashamed and embarrassed to seek treatment for what is a completely treatable condition. Untreated mental illness costs our economy billions of dollars a year. The human cost of untreated mental illness is unknown.
I’ve always planned to do a post for Mental Health Awareness about suicide. Recent events prompted me to change when I would post it.
On May 2, 2012, Junior Seau, the great linebacker who played twenty seasons for the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
As it happens when someone commits suicide, thoughts turn from the initial shock after hearing the news to trying to figure out the reason why someone would take their own life. However, in this case, the subject of repeated concussions, professional athletes and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) came up.
At this point, we don’t know exactly why Junior Seau took his own life or if he had CTE or if possible CTE contributed to his suicide. We know he sent texts to his ex-wife and his children telling them he loved them. We don’t know if he left a suicide note. We don’t know what his behavior was prior to his death. Until an autopsy is done and the investigation is complete, we can only speculate and draw conclusions about the reasons why he did what he did. We do know that his gunshot wound was to the chest and not to the head, which has led to speculation that perhaps he wanted his brain donated for the purpose of researching CTE. The late Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears was another ex-football player who committed suicide. He left instructions to have his brain donated for CTE research.
CTE can only be accurately diagnosed post-mortem. The diagnosis is done by taking a biopsy of the brain tissue, which can only be done safely after death. Until more research is done or a test is developed, there is no accurate way to diagnose CTE in a living person.
Research has shown a link between repeated concussions in athletes and traumatic brain injury and CTE. Research is ongoing.
Concussions fall under the classification of a mild traumatic brain injury. However, athletes in contact sports have repeated concussions. CTE is believed to be a cumulative result of repeated concussions. CTE is also known as the only preventable form of dementia.
Traumatic brain injuries not only happen to athletes, but have become the signature injury of soldiers who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Brain injuries do not heal like other injuries. We know that if a brain injury is severe enough, the damage can be irreversible and leave lasting mental effects. These include:
- Changes in personality
- Acting out
- Social inappropriateness
- Changes in thinking
- Changes in sensations
- Increased risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimers.
We can draw conclusions that if there was a brain injury or CTE present, that perhaps Junior Seau suffered from depression. If depression is bad enough in a person, it can lead to suicide.
But until we know for sure, this is only speculation.
The culture in professional sports and in the military is that of “sucking it up” or “gutting it out”. To show the opponent a weakness can mean a loss or even death. The athlete who takes to the field with an injury and makes a game winning play or the wounded soldier who makes the stand to hold their ground are celebrated as heroes. This mindset, unfortunately, prevents people from seeking help for mental illnesses and for the effects of a brain injury until it’s too late.
Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life. Here are the facts.
- In 2007, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States
- A firearm is the most common method of suicide, followed by suffocation and poisoning. Men are more likely to use a firearm. Women are more likely to use poison.
- Four times as many men commit suicide than women.
- Women are more likely to attempt suicide than men.
- There is one suicide for every eleven suicide attempts.
- In 2007, the highest rates of suicide were found in Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Non-Hispanic whites. The lowest rates of suicide were found among Hispanics, Non-Hispanic blacks, Asians and Pacific Islanders.
There are risk factors associated with suicide.
- Depression, other mental disorders or substance abuse
- Family history of mental illness
- Family history of suicide
- Prior attempts at suicide
- History of abuse
- Exposure to the means to end one’s own life
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, also known as “copycat suicides”.
Signs that a loved one or friend may be contemplating or considering ending their lives:
- Withdrawal from family, friends and social activities.
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Decline in school or work performance
- Increased irritability
- Giving away of one’s possessions
- Change in dress, activities or friends
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Discussion of suicide
- Extreme mood swings
- A preoccupation with death
- Calling others to say good-bye
- Making arrangements or setting one’s affairs in order
- Talk about being a burden to other people
- Talk about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Knowing the signs is important, but it may not help prevent someone who is committing suicide. Suicide is a desperate and sometimes an impulsive act. It is still important to know what these risk factors are and educate yourself.
If you hear a loved one talk about suicide, you should always take it seriously. It is better to call 911 over a threat than to ignore it and have the worst happen.
Suicide is not a weakness. It is not a cop-out. It is a permanent solution to a serious problem. A person who takes their own life is often in such emotional pain or distress, they believe that the best way to remove this pain is to end their lives. They believe they have no one or nowhere to turn to for help.
Emotional pain and mental distress are signs of mental disorders and mental issues, which are treatable. People who don’t seek treatment do so because of the stigma. They may have been raised in a culture or with the mindset that asking for help is a sign of weakness and their depression or mental distress is a character flaw.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Phil aired a show about Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans who returned with post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects this had on their loved ones. Dr. Phil offered these veterans the medical and psychological help they needed and were too afraid to ask for. On Facebook, I read through a thread on Dr. Phil’s Facebook page where a few members of the military actually chastised Dr. Phil, calling it shameful that he had these men who are so obviously hurting on his show and highlighting their pain.
Obviously, these members of the military are projecting their own issues of shame onto Dr. Phil. But this is the mindset and the stigma that persists and prevents people from seeking help. It took a long time for the military to admit that soldiers who saw combat had PTSD and offer help for it. The military is also very slow to change or adapt to change.
It is important to note that suicide rates in the Army have risen since the beginning of the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts. PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and repeated tours of duty are contributing factors. Every person has a breaking point and more often than not, these people have been pushed beyond their breaking points.
Almost everyone who commits suicide leaves a clue or a warning signs. Many of those who are left behind either don’t recognize the signs or are perhaps in denial that their loved one is depressed or in emotional distress.
This is why it is so important that the public becomes educated on such topics as PTSD, depression, suicide and brain injuries and lobby tirelessly to make sure that our returning servicemen and women receive the care they need.
In my opinion, the United States government and the military have a very terrible record in taking care of our veteran’s mental health needs. They will laud our troops and celebrate them when they are on duty, but then ignore them once they are discharged. It’s also my opinion that if our country asks these men and women to make the sacrifices they do in order to defend our country and our rights, our government has an obligation to take care of these veteran’s physical and mental health needs, especially if those needs are a result of seeing combat. This is why it is up to all of us to lobby hard to see that these veterans get this help.
The Effects of Suicide on Those Left Behind
Suicide is traumatic for those close to a person who takes their own life. Besides the grief that one experiences after the death of a friend or loved one, there are other emotions on top of that.
Survivors often feel overwhelming guilt over their perceived inability to stop the other person from taking their own life. They also feel guilt over missing the warning signs. Survivors also feel remorse, confusion, anger towards the deceased, or distress over unresolved issues between them and the loved one.
There is also a stigma associated with the act of suicide. When a person takes their own life, others are often quick to judge the recently deceased or even the people closest to them. The last thing a grieving family member wants or needs to hear from strangers is that they should have done more or their loved one had a weak character or was a coward or did something cowardly. With the advent of the social media, some people feel compelled to pass judgment on a person they did not know from the relative safety and anonymity of behind their computer screens.
Another consequence of the suicide stigma is that people may avoid the survivor because they are unsure of what to say or how to act around them. It is important to keep in mind that this is hesitancy is a reflection of their own issues about suicide and not a reflection of the family member.
If you are a survivor of suicide, it is very important to educate yourself and seek support. There are survivor support groups you can attend. You can seek counseling from a therapist to help you work through your grief.
If you know someone who is a survivor of suicide, please keep in mind that the suicide survivor’s grief process is different from that from the survivor of someone who died by other means (illness, natural causes, accident, etc.). The survivor is not only grappling with the loss of their loved one, they are often trying to figure out why their loved one committed suicide. They are dealing with other emotions such as guilt, anger, and shame.
How You Can Help
If you haven’t been touched by suicide personally, you can still help. Be an advocate. Speak up.
If you have been touched by suicide, it is even more important to talk about the subject. When a person who had a loved one commit suicide or they themselves attempted suicide in the past speaks up, it lends a tremendous amount of credibility and weight towards eliminating the stigma. Shame perpetuates the stigma.
Awareness equals knowledge. When people are armed with the knowledge, they can reach out to someone in distress.
If you or someone you know are contemplating suicide or are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or visit their website to live chat with a counselor.
If a loved one is imminently threatening to harm themselves, call 911 immediately.
Here are a few resources regarding suicide and suicide prevention.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline-for those living in the United States
Befrienders.org-a suicide prevention organization for those living outside the US
Survivors of Suicide-a support site for friends and family who lost a loved one to suicide
SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)-a support and advocacy site for suicide. There are many links to other resources on this website.
Band Back Together’s list of common motivations behind suicide. Band Back Together is a wonderful community whose purpose is to offer a place of support, comfort and education. This is a pretty thorough list of the common motivations behind a person wanting to end their own lives.
Traumatic Brain Injury- This website provides information on traumatic brain injury, what it is, the causes, side effects and how it is diagnosed and treated. I included a link to this site because TBI and CTE are in the news and are linked to depression and suicide in some.
This post is only part one. I have personally been touched by suicide and in part two, I share my own story.