Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Suicide Prevention Activism

I am so not an activist. Other than a few walks for peace and hunger in my high school years, I've been more focused on small arenas of activity: family, friends, church, the kids' schools.  

And yet, here I am: a volunteer advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  It's not a big deal, and I have no illusions of grandeur.  Mostly it means that I introduce myself to our representatives and senators, which I've done via email, and keep in touch with them when issues warrant.  There's a local chapter forming, and perhaps I'll become more involved with education and public speaking as opportunities arise.  We'll see.

As I've already said, I haven't been much interested in suicide prevention activism.  I've seen suicide primarily as a personal and family tragedy and, even if there were more to it, I haven't had the inclination to do more about it than write in my little blogs, and make the occasional presentation on care for grieving parents.

But my breast cancer experience has changed my attitude.  I've experienced firsthand what the publicity and funding efforts of the past few decades have accomplished.   When I was a girl, furtively reading my grandmother's women's magazines, I understood that breast cancer was a matter of such embarrassment, and the usual surgical treatment so extreme, that many women ignored their symptoms until their survival was unlikely.  And if they were treated and survived, they seldom discussed what had been done to their bodies.

How times have changed!  The world as we know it in October is PINK.  No secrecy, no hesitation.  We are far from a cure, but the research has come a long way, and treatment is dramatically different than it was 30 years ago.  

And then there's suicide prevention.  Little money, little publicity.  Little knowledge. Great stigma. 

My great-grandmother Robin Anderson, the woman for whom both I and my son Josh were named ~ Josh's middle name is Anderson ~  suffered from bipolar disorder, and attempted suicide at least once.  (I learned the latter piece of information only recently, although it was no surprise to me.)  Her daughter and only child, the beloved grandmother who played a huge role in my life until her death a few years ago, almost never mentioned her mother, and never described her challenges except to refer on occasion to her frequent hospitalizations at Johns Hopkins, where she was cared for by a college classmate of my grandmother's who had become a psychiatrist.

I am certain that Josh suffered from what was, to us, completely disguised severe clinical depression.  And it killed him.

What if my grandmother had been more open?  What if bipolar disorder had been discussed as freely then as breast cancer is today?  What if mental health  self-examination cards had been available to hang in the shower?  What if colleges and clinics offered routine mental health screenings?

Would we have known what we were seeing?  Would Josh have known what he was experiencing?  Would someone among us all have known to seek help?  Would there have been effective help?

Those left behind after a suicide face a lifetime of "What ifs?"

Maybe we could eliminate some of them.

I don't think that breast cancer activism has much need of me.  And frankly, breast cancer has had little effect on our family, relatively speaking.  But suicide has left a deep and terrible gash across our lives, one that will persist and will affect my grandchildren and then their children. 

Maybe I could do my small part to stop it from doing worse.


  1. with a mother who struggled all her life with depression and other issues, a son who is still working to find stability through his depression/bi polar, and with an aunt (my mothers sister) who died of suicide, I understand. Activism has many expressions, and you have been an activist longer than you have thought. and for that I give thanks.

  2. It's amazing how much of a social stigma is still attached to any kind of mental illness. This is a perfect place for you to invest some of your prodigious talents.

  3. This is such a hard thing for me. I'm grateful for your efforts, and at the same time, as someone who's spent the last 20 years braced for the possibility of her mother's suicide (often unmanaged mental illness, in and out of treatment, in and out of denial), I really struggle with how much responsibility I do (or don't) have over what happens. I have so many questions about prevention, because it seems to me to be more than education (though of course that's needed).
    I hope that doesn't feel disrespectful to you; that's not at all how I mean it. Just: it's overwhelming and complicated.

  4. I'm so glad you said that, Diana, because I struggle with the same dilemmas. When my dd went back to college after her brother's death, one of the things I found on her school's website was info for professors on how to address student needs. One of the things it said was that if you are concerned about the possibility of suicide, you should not just urge a student to make an appointment; you should walk him or her over to the counseling center. I was immediately consumed with guilt that I had not known to fly to Chicago and do exactly that.

    But the reality is that, even if we know, we cannot be with someone 24/7. And adults are at least to some extent responsible for their own lives. I guess the big question remains, though: How much, under what specific conditions?

    One of the best things I got from the survivors' group I go to occasionally was a sheet that said, "If you had been responsible for this, it would not have happened."

    I'm the mother, so of course I don't believe those words. But I say them to myself anyway.