I didn’t even know World Suicide Prevention Day was a thing.
But since it is, and since I’ve lost a loved one to suicide, I thought I’d throw in my two cents.
My stepmother killed herself a few years ago.
It was totally out of the blue.
You’ll probably see that phrase a lot, in blog/Facebook posts/Tweets today, and I’m sure everyone means it. I know I do; it was totally out of character, and unexpected.
I spoke to her just a few days before it happened. She and her husband (a man she married in what I believe was a rush to comfort herself after the death of my father, which shook her in a big way) were having problems, I knew, and I knew she was struggling.
She told me she wanted to take the kids the following week, or in the near future. (She often took them–all five of them–and did fun stuff, or simply stayed at my house with them. Her new husband didn’t have the nerves for a brood of kids, and although it hurt her, not having that bond that she had shared with my father, she had carried on their legacy with my kids by herself.)
When she mentioned this, I said–referencing her situation–”You don’t have to do that, I know you’re stressed,” and she looked at me, and leaned forward, and said, with feeling…
“I don’t just do it to help you. I do it to help me. They help me.”
And she meant it.
She was a second mom to her passel of nieces and nephews, as well, and I know she felt just as strongly about time she spent with them; it helped her just as much as it helped them to have an adult that simply loved their presence.
Grandmother and Aunt. Two roles that can relish children, because they can eventually take them back. (Usually. My grandmother ended up raising me…I don’t have the guts to ask her if it was still magical when I was with her full time, as a hormonal teenage girl.) Two roles that allow you to be a confidant, a fun-giver, a memory maker.
My kids have some extraordinary memories with her. Because she loved them, and they could feel it. She was an experience person, and she was totally focused on them when they were with her.
So, when I received the call, just a few days after that conversation, with the news that she had shot herself, I was stunned.
I was beyond stunned.
The details aren’t only mine to share, and some of the others are still painful and raw lo this many years later, so I’ll limit them, but the most significant thing–the thing that I want to use my little space her to broadcast today–is that RIGHT before this happened, she visited a doctor, talked about some symptoms she was having, and was handed antidepressants.
No one in her family or circle of friends, that I’m aware of (up to this present time), knew this.
Again, not going to share too many details, but the evidence pointed–in several ways–to her suicide being a result of the medication.
There are two possibilities about why this ended in her death, and I want to address both of them in my little space here, on this day set aside for heightening awareness about suicide.
Her Doctor Didn’t Adequately Warn/Prepare Her
Why should you be warned about an antidepressant? Well, technically, you are, if you’re taking one; SSRIs in particular are REQUIRED to carry a warning label because of the increase in suicide risk.
But how many of us read that fine print? And take it seriously enough?
Studies have shown (I’ll link an article further down that will reference some of them) that there is a risk of what is called a paradoxical reaction with certain brain-altering medications, like SSRIs. In children and adolescents, particularly. It more than DOUBLES their suicide rate.
Do doctors need to terrify you? No. But just a simple warning that the first week or so warrants extra monitoring (the first nine days of taking a new antidepressant is when a person is most at-risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors) could be life saving in some situations.
(Note: After my stepmother’s death, I was briefly on a medication for ADHD that caused me to have a suicidal reaction. If I hadn’t known about the power of drugs to do that–because of what happened to her–I honestly might have killed myself. It’s that powerful. I wasn’t told that by a doctor…I had to find it out myself.)
Mental health advocates often use a phrase that goes something like, “If you had diabetes, or a physical issue, you’d seek intervention for that, wouldn’t you? You need to do the same for mental health issues!”
And that’s a good analogy.
But if you’re going to carry it to its natural conclusion, it would be this; your general practitioner would likely refer you to an endocrinologist if your diabetes–or your child’s–was serious. A good family doctor knows his/her limits, and will get you the supervision and help your problem warrants.
I believe our system is broken if it doesn’t allow for specialized treatment of mental health.
Access to therapy–both psychological and physical, since both have been measured as contributing greatly to the treatment of certain mental health concerns like depression–as well as informed counseling about any medications administered, should be basic. (A psychologist failed to warn me about the medication I took, that caused my reaction.)
There’s another possible explanation, however, that I have to consider, and that I have to acknowledge might have contributed to my stepmom’s death.
Her Doctor Warned Her, But She Didn’t Tell Us
It’s entirely possible that my stepmom’s doctor told her a version of what I outlined above…and she didn’t share it with me, or someone who knew to keep tabs on her.
The thought of a medical professional not preparing someone for the potential power of a drug makes me frustrated, but the idea that someone I love felt that it wasn’t possible to share something like this breaks my heart.
I know that my stepmother believed we’re an overmedicated society. That tells me two things; her pain was overwhelming if she agreed to trying medication, and also, possibly…she was hesitant about being judged.
Again, I can’t know. She’s not here to tell us.
But if there’s even a chance that her concern about someone seeing her taking an antidepressant as something to be judged about led to her death, I want to address it.
There’s no shame in seeking help.
THERE IS NO SHAME IN SEEING HELP.
There’s no shame in taking medication.
THERE IS NO SHAME IN TAKING MEDICATION.
I know that my medically induced suicidal episode wasn’t something anyone could have foreseen; I only got help because I knew what it was and I told someone. If I hadn’t known what it was, I don’t think I would have called someone and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about killing myself, and when I tried to tell myself that it would be bad for my kids, I blew myself off and told myself they’d get over it.”
I can’t explain how it’s different from being so paralyzed by depression that you consider suicide (I’ve had that happen, too), but it is. It goes from being an option to the only thing that makes sense. It’s otherworldly, and it isn’t scary…that’s the scary thing about it.
If you’re depressed and have thoughts of suicide, tell someone. Tell someone, tell someone, tell someone.
If they shrug it off…tell someone else. Someone cares, and someone will help you, even if the first person you tell doesn’t. (You can always call the National Suicide Prevention hotline, at 1-800-273-8255, or text “GO” to 741741).
And if you’re starting a new antidepressant or other medication that carries a warning of suicidal thoughts or actions…tell someone. Tell someone, tell someone, tell someone.
At least make sure you’re monitored for the first ten days.
If suicide is preventable (it isn’t, always), it’s through connection.
(You can read an informative post about why some antidepressants raise suicide risk here.)
Edited to Add:
A friend reminded me (through sharing her experience) that antidepressants aren’t only used for combating depression. She was prescribed an antidepressant (for insomnia) and experienced suicidal ideation when she stopped it.
And one other thing, while I’m on the subject…
REMOVE THE PHRASE “SUICIDE IS SO SELFISH” FROM YOUR VOCABULARY.
Blaming/stigmatizing victims is not helpful. To the cause or to survivors. The End.