Anytime the topic of mental health or suicide (my fundamental stance is that suicide is not just a mental health issue, but a societal problem, however in this post I talk about the suicide due to mental illnesses) is brought up, people get quiet and wish to leave these taboo subjects in the shadows. Unless a celebrity commits suicide or admits having a mental illness. Then people talk, then people show support, then people push the governments and policy makers to train specialists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and anyone else that would take the “burden” from their private lives. People want “others” to improve the situation, yet never seem to be passionate enough to take matters into their hands.
I have seen this pattern in my native country of Lithuania countless times. The community does not wish to speak about suicide or mental health because it is frowned upon, it is taboo. Regular people, who open up to their friends and families about suffering from depression are quietly shut down for “being too spoiled,” “having too much free time,” or have to listen to another story from the “childhood, where sadness was healed by beating and house chores.”
And I am not even talking about suicidal thoughts.
Oh, aren’t those people selfish? No.
How do I know? I was once one of those “selfish” people.
From my personal experiences and several years of suicide research in Lithuania and East Asia, I have come to a conclusion that, although legislative attempts to prevent suicide are beneficial for the most critical stage of suffering, the increase in hospital beds will not improve the well-being.
Then what helps? Well, firstly it would be great to start talking about these issues in the public domain and raising the acceptance of people, who are often marginalised.
Sounds simple, right? Not really.
One recent example of suicide prevention in Lithuania comes to my mind. A prominent politician and the Head of the Suicide Prevention Commission worked on a book that would include stories of people whose relatives committed suicide. These stories were supposed to portray the suffering of individuals, who were affected by suicide. In turn, this ought to prevent people from committing suicide by showing how many people they would hurt. In other words, how selfish these people are for thinking of killing themselves.
However, were individuals who attempted suicides included? Unfortunately, no. The premise of the book is correct and promising. It is true that any kind of death affects family and friends, however making the unfortunate people feel guilty for this is neither right nor helpful. First of all, the family members often have nothing to do with the illnesses, thus blaming themselves will not be healthy for anyone. Secondly, when one is at the bottom of mental distress, there are no thoughts of other people, there are no thoughts of “self” either. There is just a dark abyss of pain and suffering. There is no rational thinking or motivation to wonder what others are feeling. Especially, if everyone around you is dismissing what you’re feeling and not providing any support. The illness eats the person up and sucks out all the will of continuing the painful existence.
It is vital to remember – psychological illnesses kill people. Suicide in this case is no longer a wholly personal choice, as there is no “person” left.
I do not wish to romanticise suicide or mental illness, as there is nothing romantic or mystical about it. It is horrible. It is as awful as any other physical illness.
However, when a person dies from pneumonia or other physical complications, nobody talks about their selfishness and inconsideration towards others. People praise them for fighting this long and being resilient till the end. Then why are individuals who die from depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder are treated as selfish, and their fight with their own brain gets dismissed? Yes, it is often easier to hide and quietly battle with mental illness, while functioning as a normal human being. However, that is usually because of the continuing stigma and a deeply rooted belief that “what happens in the brain, stays in the brain”.
Then how can we help people who suffer from mental health problems and/or have suicidal thoughts without shoving psychiatrists and hospital beds down their throats?
I propose two things – education and dialogue. The best thing is that both can be done on a personal or local level, without any governmental involvement.
It is not difficult to watch a couple of videos on bipolar disorder or simply ask the affected person about their issues or what they’re going through. These human beings have the first-hand experience and are much more willing to explain how they feel instead of having assumptions being made about them.
For instance, I also live with bipolar disorder and would rather tell someone what it is, instead of being asked whether I have taken my medications, just because I feel down one day. It is just rude.
I believe that having mental health as part of the school curriculum would be the best step towards a better understanding of these issues. When I was in Lithuania, we never spoke of mental health problems and ways to deal with them. We had a social worker at the school. However, anyone who saw her was perceived as weird and ended up being isolated or bullied. (Another step for Lithuanian biology/health curriculum would be to introduce gender and sexuality studies, maybe hatred towards LGBTQ+ would subdue…) The lack of discussion and education leaves the society ignorant and alien to their emotions. And nobody wants to talk about it in the long-run.
As for the second point, I also believe that dialogue and integration are the best way to show support. I feel much better whenever someone wholeheartedly asks about my mental state without judgment or false affirmation suggestions (I am looking at you “just be positive” or “your life is great, don’t be sad”), as they rarely work. We simply wish people to understand that mental illnesses are legit diseases that need to be taken care of.
People with mental illness do not want to die. However, sometimes the society and the isolation forces the people to stop seeing the purpose in their lives. Sometimes finding a new interest helps, and sometimes a heartful talk over a cup of coffee saves a life.
As long as we start a discussion, we can progress.