7 Misconceptions About Suicide That Have To Go


By the time the clock strikes midnight tonight, between 200 and 250 Canadians will have attempted to take their own lives today. Eleven of them will have succeeded. Eleven families will have their hearts broken. They will go to bed and lie awake wondering if they could have done anything to prevent this tragedy. Eleven lives will be lost due to utter desperation, a bleakness and hopelessness that many people cannot understand.

It is all too easy to judge those who reach the point of taking their own lives. Judgment is wasted energy, though. It doesn’t help anybody: not the person doing the judging, not the loved ones of those who have committed suicide, and certainly not people who are inching closer and closer to the end of their rope.

Judgments and stigmas against suicide victims are based on misconceptions and misunderstanding. I want to clear up some misconceptions that really need to go the way of the dinosaur.

1. People who commit suicide are not selfish. Sure, it may seem that way. It may seem as if the victim has acted without thought or care for the people being left behind. People who have attempted suicide and survived will attest to the fact that they did agonize over what their passing would do to their loved ones. But in the end, they felt so trapped and hopeless that they could not see a way out. They truly believed that they were doing the right thing not only for themselves, but for the people around them.

2. People who commit suicide are not “taking the easy way out”. Let’s get something straight: suicide is not easy. It is not a snap decision that people make when they simply don’t feel like trying to live anymore. It is a point that is arrived at over weeks, months or years of desperation. Most suicide victims do try to keep going, but in the end, they just cannot see a way forward anymore.

3. Many people who commit suicide don’t actually want to die. This may seem counter-intuitive, but suicide is not driven by a wish to die. More often, it’s driven by a need to escape. A lot of people who commit suicide feel trapped in their own heads, and death is simply the only way they can get out.

4. People do not commit suicide in order to get attention. Some people self-harm because they really need help but don’t know how to ask for it. Or they have tried asking for help but they were not taken seriously. People who make serious suicide attempts are not doing it for the attention. They are doing it because life is excruciatingly painful for them.

5. Suicide is a result of mental illness. All too often, I hear people asking why someone with a great job and a beautiful family would kill themselves. That’s like asking why someone who exercises daily and eats healthily would die of cancer. Mental illness, like cancer, can happen to anyone. The difference is that when people get cancer, they are taken seriously.

6. People who are suicidal are capable of happiness. When an acquaintance of mine committed suicide several years ago, a lot of people were mystified. “She always seemed so happy,” they said. The thing is, at times, she was happy. Many people who feel that desperate need to escape from their lives have the capacity to experience periods of happiness. It is not sadness – the opposite of happiness – that drives people to suicide. It is depression. Depression and sadness are not the same thing.

7. People who are suicidal can be helped. I once heard someone say something along the lines of, “If someone really wants to kill themselves, they will find a way to do it.” I don’t remember the full context, but I do know that it was part of a conversation about suicide prevention. For most people, suicide is an absolute last resort when they believe that all other options have been exhausted. They want to be helped, and they can be helped – a fact that is borne out by the crisis helpline program that was implemented on all of Toronto’s subway platforms in 2011. In the first six weeks after the program was launched, the crisis helpline saved seven people who had gone to the subway station with the intention of jumping in front of a train.

Today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. If we all do our part to stop judging and start understanding, how many lives can we save?

This is an original post for Running for Autism by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Leticia Burtin. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Autism And Mental Health

I'm Blogging for Mental Health 2015.

My son George hops off the yellow school bus and bounds up the driveway with his fingers in his ears – a throwback to last summer, when the sound of the tree-feller’s chainsaw hurt his ears. He shucks off his backpack, removes the hoodie that he will not abandon even during the height of the summer, and kicks off his shoes. Then, and only then, am I permitted to talk to him.

“How was school?” I ask him, as I always do.

“School was fine,” he says, as he always does.

“What did you do today?”

He doesn’t reply. Instead he starts peering at the brim of his hat, or running a finger along the edge of the door frame.

“George?” I ask, needing to engage him before he gets too far into his own head. “What did you do at school today?”

“School was fine,” he mutters.

“Tell me one thing you did today.”

“Played outside,” he says, after a pause.

“And what did you do outside?” I ask, hoping I’m accomplishing the tone of gentle persistence that I’m going for. He cannot feel forced, but he needs to know that I’m not giving up on this conversation. It’s a delicate balance some days.

“Kicked the soccer ball,” he says.

“Wow, that sounds like fun!” I say effusively.

Sensing that he’s fulfilled his obligation to talk, he runs off to turn on his computer. I sit on the stairs for a moment, feeling both exhausted and elated by the fact that I actually had a conversation – albeit a brief one – with my son. For most kids, this kind of exchange would not be a big deal. For George, it is.

George, now eleven years old, was diagnosed with autism when he was three. We had him assessed because he wasn’t talking, and even though he has come a long way since then, his speech and communication skills are far below those of his typically developing peers. This comes with a number of challenges, but there is one challenge in particular that I have never really spoken about.

How do I know if he’s OK?

I’m not talking about “OK” in the physical sense. George is able to tell me when he feels sick, or when a part of his body is hurting. He has even started to identify emotions, telling me when he’s sad or angry.

What I’m talking about is whether he’s “OK” from a mental health perspective. With my younger son, who is typically developing, it’s fairly simple. I have conversations with him, I talk to him about how he’s feeling, and from his natural expressiveness I can get a sense of whether everything is all right or not. I am well aware that childhood depression is a very real problem, I know what signs to look out for, and I have a reasonable degree of certainty that I would recognize it in my younger son.

With George, it’s a little more complicated, and from a statistical standpoint, it’s more of a concern. Individuals with developmental disabilities are more likely than the general population to experience mental illness, but they are less likely to be diagnosed, because it’s less likely that the people around them will realize that something is wrong. George, with his speech delays, does not have the words or the cognitive functioning to describe depression in a way that would enable me to recognize it.

Even the behavioural cues present in typically developing children may be different for those with special needs. It is easy – far too easy – to blame everything on autism. When a child with autism has a meltdown, or starts to cry for no reason, or gets lost inside his or her own head, everyone assumes it’s because of the autism. That is not unreasonable: in many cases, it is because of the autism.

But what about those times when it isn’t? What about the times when a child is banging his head against the wall because his mind is in a dark, desolate place and he doesn’t know how to express it? What if the other-worldliness is not symptomatic of autism, but of withdrawal? What if no-one realizes that depression has become the child’s companion, because in their well-meaning attempts to manage the autism, they just haven’t thought to consider anything else?

These concerns are part of what drives me to try to have conversations with George. Every single thing he can tell me – no matter how small it might seem – is like a golden nugget that I treasure. I lavishly praise his attempts to communicate, and every day, I encourage him to tell me something – anything – that happened to him that day. It is my hope that if, at some point, anything is going on in his life or in his mind that he needs help with, that will be the thing he tells me about that day.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle, written for APA’s Mental Health Blog Day. Picture attributed to the American Psychological Association.





Keeping The Conversation Going


When Robin Williams committed suicide back in August, a friend predicted that everyone would post obsessively about depression awareness for a week before forgetting about it and moving on. Apart from the duration – the posts lasted for two weeks – her prediction was dead-on.

Three months after the death of Mr. Williams, Facebook and Twitter posts about mental illness had all but disappeared. Then a woman named Brittany Maynard started trending on social media when she chose assisted suicide over a horrible death from cancer.

Reactions to her death have been all over the place. There are those who believe Brittany’s decision showed courage and strength of character, and there are those who are convinced that she is burning in hell because of her selfishness and disobedience of God.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way equating the deaths of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard. Robin Williams fought a long battle with depression. He felt desperate and hopeless, and when he looked into the future all he could see was a bleak, desolate landscape. Brittany Maynard was not suffering from depression, and she did not want to die. She simply knew that her death was both inevitable and imminent, and she wanted to spare herself and her family the ravages of brain cancer.

The only thing the two deaths have in common is that both individuals chose to take their own lives.

Whether or not terminally ill people are obligated to see their diseases through to the bitter end is a matter of personal opinion, and that’s another debate for another day. The thing that I took issue with after Brittany died was a comment posted by one of my Facebook contacts on a link to the story.

“Anyone who commits suicide is selfish.”

I was certain that I had seen the commenter’s name crop up in one of the discussions following the death of Robin Williams, so I started digging around in the bowels of her newsfeed. It took a while, but I found it: a statement to the effect that people really shouldn’t judge those to take their own lives without walking a mile in a depressed person’s shoes.

I’m not usually one to start a fight, but one thing I cannot stand is hypocrisy, and as an advocate for mental health awareness, I couldn’t just let it go. So I went back to the Brittany Maynard discussion and replied to her comment, reminding her of what she had said when Robin Williams died. She didn’t respond. Unfortunately, her comment about suicide being selfish was far from isolated.

I am left feeling somewhat disheartened. Did we learn nothing from the Robin Williams tragedy? If, three months later, people are spouting those cruel stereotypes that they previously vowed to help fight, how are we ever going to move forward? Will we ever be able to continue the discussions, or are we going to keep having to start the same discussions over and over again?

I don’t expect everyone to start posting endlessly about mental illness, but I would love to see it consistently treated with the same respect that is given to physical illness. I would love for people to feel able to talk about their experiences with mental illness without fear of embarrassment or shame. I would love to see the judgments and blame replaced with understanding and support.

And I would love to see more meaningful conversations that are not triggered by tragedy.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Victor. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Robin Williams And The Tragedy Of Depression


Last night, for the first time ever, I cried over a celebrity’s death. My tears had nothing to do with the loss of such an immense talent – although I have been a Robin Williams fan for decades – and everything to do with the fact that another life has been lost to mental illness.

I suspect that I am not alone. I suspect that right now, people all over the globe are relating to the drowning feeling of depression that drove Robin Williams to seek such a desperate escape. Several times since this tragic news broke, I have seen variations of one overriding question on my social media feeds: if a man with the financial resources of a celebrity could not find the help that he needed, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The truth is that while money can buy therapy, it does not buy the understanding of those around us. I started seeing my therapist four years ago, and although it has undoubtedly helped me, the benefits I have gained have been severely restricted by the stigmas and misconceptions that surround mental illness to this day. A number of conditions have to be met in order for therapy to truly work. The right therapist is one. Adequate support and understanding in your daily life is another.

It’s not to say that people don’t care – it’s just that many of them don’t understand. If I had a dollar for the number of times I’ve been told that depression is not a “real” illness, I’d had enough for an entire team of therapists.

I’ve written about the misconceptions surrounding depression before, but they are worth repeating, especially now that Robin Williams has put such a focus on it by taking his own life.

* When I am in the grip of depression, I cannot “snap out of it”. Asking someone to snap out of depression is like asking them to snap out of a heart attack.

* Depression is not to be equated with sadness. It cannot even be regarded as a severe form of sadness. Depression and sadness are two completely different things, in the same way that asthma and the common cold are two completely different things.

* Suicide is not a selfish, cowardly act. It is the act of someone who is desperate to get away from a terrible, desolate, frightening situation, and who sees no other escape route.

* Contrary to a popular Facebook meme, people with depression are not “focused on the past”, and they will not magically cure themselves by living in the present.

* Sometimes, for some people, the right medication can lead to dramatic improvements in quality of life, but it’s not for everybody. Someone who refuses medication is not being stubborn. They might be afraid, or they might have learned from experience that it doesn’t work for them.

* A person with depression is capable of smiling, laughing at jokes and having a good time with friends. If you see a picture of someone smiling, don’t say that they “can’t be that depressed”. Robin Williams himself is a perfect illustration of that.

This list is a drop in the bucket, but if we can shift peoples’ understanding on these few points, that will be a good start. If you suffer from depression, don’t be afraid to talk about it and ask for help. It’s really nothing to be ashamed of. If you know someone with depression, be there for them. One of the scariest things for a person with depression is the feeling of being alone in the world.

The death of Robin Williams is a great tragedy. It will be an even greater tragedy if we don’t learn something from it. If his death leads to greater awareness and understanding, and saves just one person from suicide – well, I think he would like that.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: BagoGames. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


10 Ways To Take Care Of Your Mental Health


1. Put yourself first from time to time. I’m not saying you should abandon your children in a deserted warehouse while you go off on a Mediterranean cruise. I’m just saying that sometimes it’s OK to take yourself out for coffee or go for a run – whatever it is that you like – even if it means <gasp> making your kids wait for whatever they want.

2. Stop and smell the roses. I mean that literally – if you see something beautiful, slow down and give yourself time to appreciate it. There is a small patch of tulips about three minutes’ walk from my house. Every Spring, my heart is lifted by the sight of them starting to bloom. Even on my worst days, when I feel horribly depressed, looking at the tulips has the power to uplift me.

3. Exercise, even if it just means going for a walk around the block. When you are in the depths of desperation, exercising might be the last thing you want to do, but it is almost certain to help. There are physiological reasons why physical motion helps people who struggle with mental illness.

4. Start your day with an accomplishment. For me, this means going for a run. For someone else, it might be finding a recipe for dinner or putting on a load of laundry. It doesn’t have to be big: for a period of time last summer, the simple act of brushing my teeth counted as an accomplishment.

5. See a therapist. Many people see this as a sign of shame or weakness, but honestly, it’s fine. Life sometimes throws things at us that we cannot and should not cope with alone. I’ve been seeing my therapist for almost four years now, and my only complaint is that I took so long to take that step.

6. Be aware of your self-talk. People who struggle with depression or anxiety have very strong powers of persuasion, and they persuade themselves to believe all of the wrong things. Negative self-talk can send a person into a downward spiral faster than the speed of light.

7. Recognize that sometimes it’s OK to fall apart. You don’t have to be strong and composed at all times. If life is overwhelming you, take yourself to a safe place and cry big, fat ugly tears.

8. Get enough sleep. This can be a tall order, since depression and anxiety seem to go hand-in-hand with insomnia. There are various strategies that can be used to help you relax. My therapist taught me the technique of tensing and relaxing all of my muscles, one body part at a time. That works quite well for me. Someone else might prefer visualization techniques, reading or listening to relaxing music. The point is that if you struggle with sleep, you need to try and find something that will work for you. The world is a frightening place: it’s even scarier when seen through the fog of sleeplessness.

9. Eat properly. Again, this means different things to different people, but you need to fuel yourself properly to function well both physically and mentally.

10. Know that mental illness is not a source of shame. It’s not something that you can just snap out of, it’s not your fault and it’s not something you should feel bad about. It’s an illness, just like any other illness, and it should be treated with the same respect. Recognizing that can help you come to a greater sense of acceptance for yourself.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle, written for Mental Health Blog Day.


10 Things I Have Learned About Mental Illness


1. It’s not my fault. As much as we humans like to be in control of our lives, the likes of depression, anxiety and PTSD are not things we can control. They happen to us, and we deal with them as best we can.

2. It has absolutely no bearing on whether I am a good or a bad person. The fact that I made some bad decisions twenty years ago that triggered a whole mess of crap does not mean I don’t deserve to be happy and well.

3. The fact that an illness exists inside a person’s mind rather than in another part of their body does not make it any less of an illness. Mental illness should be given the same respect as physical illness.

4. Mental illness can, if left untreated, be fatal. Suicide and suicidal ideations are not selfish, as many people believe. They are manifestations of an illness. People contemplating suicide do not necessarily want to die, they simply feel that there is no other course of action available to them.

5. Depression is not the same as sadness. Being depressed is like being in a black pit of despair from which there seems to be no escape.

6. There is not always a reason for depression. If someone tells you that they are experiencing depression, please, please, please don’t say things like, “But you have so many great things in your life to be grateful for.”

7. I am not alone. Although my specific circumstances may be unique to me, I don’t have to look far to find someone who more or less understands what it’s like.

8. Far too many people either die or spend their lives in a state of absolute anguish because they fear the stigma of mental illness, so they choose not to talk about it.

9. Mental illness is the same as physical illness in terms of treatment: what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. You have the right to make choices about your treatment, just as you do for a physical illness.

10. People with mental illnesses can, for the most part and with the right support, function well in society. They can be successful in their careers, make valuable social and economic contributions, and maintain healthy relationships with the people around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Bell Let’s Talk.


Guest Post: Surviving Post-Adoption Depression

Today is Guest Post Swap Day at the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge! I am delighted to have been paired with Becky, who looks at the world of adoption from a different vantage point to me. I am an adoptee, and Becky is the mom of adoptees. In her blog, Lessons from an Infertile Social Worker, she writes about her journey to motherhood and her life as a parent. Today, she shares an aspect of adoption that really needs to be given some attention.

family fall pic

When I think about adoption, there is so much to say; I find it difficult to narrow down the topic.  Do I talk about how we came to the decision that the way our family would grow was through adoption? Do I share my journey to breastfeeding my two sons, both of whom we adopted? Do I discuss open adoption, why we chose it, and the challenges and blessings it has afforded me? Do I educate about proper adoption language? Do I ponder how adoption has changed my parenting philosophies? There are so many possibilities.

In my professional life, I’ve talked with hundreds of pregnant women and new mommies about postpartum depression, the feelings, the red flags, how to recognize it in themselves, how others around them could recognize it and be supportive, what can help, etc… I could assess whether a new mommy was experiencing symptoms, and I could diagnose it. I knew how to talk to her about it, and what resources to point her towards. What I never knew was that it was something I could experience. I’d told women for years that a big part of postpartum depression was their out-of-whack hormones. I knew that I wouldn’t have to deal with that thanks to adoption. I was wrong. I did experience it, even without the hormones to blame.

I can’t imagine any child being more wanted than my son. We tried for years to get pregnant and I was thrilled beyond belief when we were chosen by his birth family. I was thrilled to take him home, to put him in his bed, to cuddle him, to nurse him, to rock him, to read to him… But somewhere along the way things changed. Really, it may be more accurate to say that things didn’t change, at least not how I thought they should and would.

I told moms all the time that “over half of new parents don’t fall head over heels in love with their babies right away. You didn’t experience love at first sight with your partner, so why should you expect it with your baby. It takes a while to get to know one another. It will come in time. Don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t happen immediately, but don’t doubt that it will come”. I never even considered the possibility that I wouldn’t experience that all-consuming love for my baby immediately – I wouldn’t have the hormones going crazy, we were prepared, we were ready, we knew what we were doing, we wanted him so much.

I stayed home with him for about 8-9 weeks after he was born. Though hubby shared nighttime duty with me, I was taking 2 graduate level classes and I was still exhausted. In truth, I was at times a little jealous that hubby got to leave during the day (not to mention got to shower and brush his teeth before 3pm). I was rocking the baby one afternoon – it had been a difficult day for me and the 4 week old – when hubby came in from a great day at work. He leaned over the side of the rocking chair and tenderly said, “I never thought I could love anyone as much as I love you, but I sure love this little guy a lot”. I could see he had tears in his eyes though I couldn’t bring myself to really look at him. Because all that was running through my mind was, “well big deal for you. How wonderful for you to get to feel that way?!!!”. All I said out loud was “yeah”.

I was furious. At the time I thought I was angry with him, but I realize now I was angry with myself. Angry that I didn’t feel that way about our son, the baby I had so longed for, the baby I had waited and prayed about for years. Angry that hubby got to feel that way first.  Angry that I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth that day.

But mostly I felt guilt. Guilt that this child deserved all-encompassing love that I wasn’t sure I could give to him. Guilt that I was angry which surely he could sense. Guilt that by not feeling that intense bond and attachment he would be permanently scarred. Guilt that obviously I wasn’t worthy to be a mother, which was maybe why God hadn’t *let* us get pregnant. Guilt. Dark, ugly guilt.

I don’t know when my love for my son became “big”, though I do remember when I realized that it had. When he was about 4 months old, we both had a nasty stomach virus. He vomited in hubby’s mouth (I know, gross, but I warned hubby not to play rough with a baby who had been puking all day) and I thought, “You show him, kid”. I realized we were a duo then, this adorable baby and I, we had something that was just between the two of us, and it was strong and intense. We had that bond. I hadn’t completely failed.

It took me a long time to recognize myself what I was experiencing after my son was born, and quite a bit longer to admit to it to anyone. I’ve now read research and talked with other parents through adoption and I know I’m not the only one to experience post adoption depression. I still carry some guilt about it, but I realize it’s nothing I can change. I also know I have the most awesome son with whom I now have an intensely strong bond. I know he wasn’t harmed by the natural progression of our relationship. I’m trying to forgive myself, which I know is silly because, as I would tell any of the hundreds of mommies I worked with, it wasn’t my fault.

Post adoption depression is real and it is no more a mother’s fault than postpartum depression. It’s not something to be ashamed of and it isn’t a dirty little secret. And, just like postpartum depression, it’s something we need to talk about so that no one else has to feel guilty or alone.


Parenting and Mental Health: A Tough Balancing Act

When it comes to parenting my kids, I say all the same things that most mothers say. Everyone has Bad Mommy Days. I’m only human. I have to take care of myself in order to take care of my children. Even when things aren’t going so well, I need to remember that I’m a good mother.

But who am I kidding, really? Like most mothers, I expect myself to be perfect at all times, and I take the concept of guilt to a whole new level. Even more so than the Catholics do.

I pile one thing after another onto my plate, and somehow I manage to keep all the balls in the air most of the time. In the event of me dropping a ball, it’s always one that pertains to my own physical or mental health. In other words, I make it a priority to take care of everyone else, but I just kind of accept that it’s OK for me to neglect myself in the process.

This does not make me special by any means. Most mothers do this, and we all know that we’re not supposed to. We all know that the world won’t end if we take a bit of time to ourselves instead of putting on that load of laundry so that Little Johnny can wear his favourite shirt to school tomorrow. But we head right on down to the washing machine anyway.

Let’s face it, this whole equation is grossly unbalanced. I mean, here I am, a mom of a kid with autism and a kid who’s just a little – you know, spirited. I work full-time, freelance on the side, help the husband with his business and take care of household finances. That’s before I even get to the laundry.

It gets really tricky when it comes to my mental health. This is a subject that I am generally not comfortable talking about, but I feel that it’s important. Many, many mothers – myself included – have to deal with the reality of coping with mental illness while being the best parents they can possibly be. And it’s hard, because as scared and vulnerable and anxious as we may feel, it is our instinct to be strong for our kids.

This week is particularly tough, and here’s why. At this week’s therapy session, me and my therapist started the process of delving into a part of my life that was, to say the least, traumatic. I was describing a specific event – not glossing over the story, but describing everything in detail, and reliving the whole mess all over again.

A process like this comes with a certain amount of psychological fallout. My nerves have been in tatters and my emotions are raw. I am not sleeping, because all of a sudden my mind is being forced to try and process stuff that I’ve been keeping buried for the last twenty years.

And I am a mom. I have kids to take care of, autism meltdowns to deal with, boo-boos to kiss better, hugs and affection to bestow.

Being a mom and dealing with mental illness are not really activities that complement one another. And when I have to choose between taking care of my kids and dealing with my issues, guess who wins every single time?

While I’m putting on a brave face for my kids, though, my feelings are still there. I am still feeling the stress, the trauma, the anxiety, and depending on the day, the depression. I am still staying awake until late at night because I’m afraid to go to sleep and face the nightmares.

But I do what I have to do for my kids, because no matter what weirdness is going on inside my own head, parenting will always be the most important thing I ever do.

I know that I am not alone. I know that there are other moms out there who live with mental illness. I would love to hear from those moms, to find out if – and how – they keep things balanced.

(Photo credit: darcyadelaide. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


How A Different Mindset May Save Lives

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what is or is not to blame for the Sandy Hook shooting.

I have seen arguments and statistics on both sides of the gun control debate. While I am not personally a fan of every man and his dog having a gun, I have to remind those pushing for gun control that this year we had two shooting sprees within a month of each other. In Toronto. Where there is gun control. On the other hand, countries with gun control do have fewer mass shootings than countries without it.

Then there’s the religion argument. Apparently, “keeping God in the schools” would solve the problem. I don’t mean to sound cynical – not much, anyway – but do proponents of this view really believe that saying the Lord’s Prayer before class every day would have stopped the perpetrator from doing this? Let’s also consider the fact that shootings of this nature rarely happen in secular countries where there is strong separation of church and state.

The shooter “may have” had autism and OCD. Really? Well, the shooter “may have” had hayfever. Does this mean we have to start perpetuating discrimination against people who have hayfever? Yes, the whole idea of autism being to blame is that ridiculous.

We need better access to mental health care. With that one, I think we’re getting closer to the root – or at least one possible root – of the problem. There are some people who are just inherently evil, and nothing we do short of incarcerating them or killing them will stop them from committing unspeakable acts. But there are people who are genuinely sick, who do not get the help they need, and who end up doing things like this. I am in no position to say whether the Sandy Hook shooter fell into this category – I am just making the point that mental illness, when left unchecked, can have terrible, tragic consequences.

Mental illness is like just about every other illness or condition on the face of the planet. The earlier it is detected and treated, the better. We could talk all day about how mental health facilities need to be more easily available to those who need them. Few would argue the validity of helping people who need to be helped.

But the challenge begins before the mentally ill person even gets to the point of discovering that the help they need may be hard to come by.

We live in a society that, say what you like, is not very accepting of mental illness. I mean that in a very literal sense: there is a deep-seated reluctance in many people to acknowledge that there is such a thing as mental illness. I have a list of mental health issues, including no less than four different kinds of depression. When I have tried to enlist the support of those around me like the websites say you should, I have been hit with stuff like this:

* “You’re depressed because you’re dwelling on the past.”

* “All you need to do is change your attitude.”

* “You need to have more consideration for your family.”

* “You need to choose to be happy.”

And my personal favourite:

* “You need to snap out of it.”

When people with mental illnesses are bombarded with messages like this, what are the chances of them actually being motivated to seek professional help? If someone has depression, anxiety, PTSD or any other mental illness, the last thing they need is for a doctor to tell them they are imagining it, or that they are somehow to blame. Many people in that position do not seek help because that is exactly the response they fear.

The truth is that mental illness is very real, and very frightening to those who experience it. It is not something that can be fixed through a simple change of attitude. You cannot just “snap out of it”. People who commit suicide are not, as many believe, “just thinking of themselves”. They have simply reached a point where they cannot see a way forward.

Just over a decade ago, when I was a new arrival in Canada, Toronto news was full of a terrible story about a woman who had leaped into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her six-month-old baby. The baby died instantly, but the mother hung on in hospital for a while before succumbing to her injuries. The public was outraged. How could this woman have deprived her child of life? What kind of monster was she?

The story unfolded to reveal a woman who was so desperate that she didn’t know what to do. Following the birth of her child, she was caught in the grip of post-partum depression. She did not receive the help that she needed in spite of having told her nearest and dearest that she was depressed and frightened. They just didn’t understand the depths of the problem, and in all likelihood, she was too ashamed to go to a professional.

Do I condone what that mother did? No, of course not. I never think it is OK for someone to kill their child or anyone else. But having gone through post-partum depression (which, by the way, was untreated for over a year because I felt too ashamed to seek help), I can appreciate just how scared and depressed and absolutely hopeless she probably felt.

People with mental illnesses need to be encouraged to seek help for their conditions. In order to accomplish that, we need to change the way we think about mental illness. People who have mental health problems need to stop being told that it is “all in their head” or that they have the power to change things under their own steam. They need to be given the message that help is available to them and that there is no shame in seeking it out.

Reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness would not fix everything that is wrong with the world. It would not eliminate all tragedies. But there is a very good chance that it would save some lives.

(Photo credit: Steven de Polo. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


GUEST POST: Fighting With My Shame

Kerry White has a few things in common with me. She was also born in South Africa, and she also lives in North America (Texas, to be exact). Like me, she knows what it’s like to parent a small energetic boy. And like me, she knows what it’s like to live with mental illness, including depression and social anxiety.

I first got to know Kerry through a now mostly-defunct Yahoo group called Homesick South Africans. During its heyday, this group was the venue of some lively discussions – a few of them controversial, many of them humourous, almost all of them supportive. Several friendships that formed during the group’s active existence have continued through social media. I am so grateful to the Internet for existing, because without it, my friendship with Kerry would not have evolved in the way it has. This is a woman for whom I have a great deal of admiration and respect.

As I strive to talk about my own struggles with mental illness, I am immensely grateful to Kerry for this post, in which she frankly and courageously shares her own journey.

So I think I’m crazy. Absolutely strait-jacket-heavily-medicate-me-and-lock-me-up crazy! I have felt this way for a very long time, probably since I was about ten years old and reading my first Stephen King books. I recognized the signs of madness in my mind from the characters in some of his books.

As a much more jaded adult, I now recognize myself for what and who I am. I have severe depression, social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and it all comes bursting forth in the less than neat and tidy package of major panic attacks. I live with mental illness, and I am terribly ashamed of it. I feel broken, less of a person, less of a woman, and worst of all I feel like a terrible mother because of it.

Growing up in South Africa in the 80s, my mental illness was not recognized for what it was. My anxiety, and shyness, and my odd acting out behaviors gave the impression that I was a difficult child; not that I was a child in dire need of some thought of help.

Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was not unpleasant at all. My parents were hard-working and loving individuals who did the best they could for us during rocky financial times. But there was no such thing as depression, anxiety, panic attack, mental illness. There was just doing what needs to be done, threatening electroshock therapy when I refused to communicate about an assault when I was a teenager, and threatening to send me away to a mental institution. At 16 I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers who are in crisis. I felt normal! I felt accepted! I felt safe! I was there for two weeks and then released, but promptly tried to kill myself because I didn’t get the support I needed at home. I spent another several weeks in there, but soon learned that I was better off shutting the part of myself I thought to be crazy away. I was never going to get support outside of the walls of that mental health hospital. I was always going to be told to just suck it up and get over it. Because that was just the way things were handled.

I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to just get over it, trying to avoid the idea that I have a problem that no amount of “getting over” will fix. I have tolerated abusive partners, abusive bosses, and abusive coworkers; because I felt I wasn’t worth more.

When I had my son, my depression and anxiety kicked into high gear – but I expected it to. I refused to take the prescribed antidepressants, in case they made me worse (as others have done in the past), or someone saw me as too weak to raise this child. But I do recognize now that I should have not only taken the medication but sought out help. Help wasn’t offered for my “baby blues” and I didn’t go find it. It got to the point, several times, where I wanted to end my life because I was so miserable and felt like such a failure.

I’ve found myself mentally standing on a ledge, with nothing behind me, not even one hand to reach out and pull me to safety. But then the knowledge of the small body pressing against me, raising out a hand and calling out for “mommy” reminds me that if I jump off of this mental ledge then he loses himself, too.

As my son’s needs have changed, so has my mental illness. It has to. I have to get us dressed and get him to daycare so that I can work. I work at home, which just encourages my social anxiety. We need to go to the store and get milk and the occasional toy car, so I steel myself and leave the house. For him.

I’ve made myself get on a plane to visit family; I’ve made myself go visit friends. But it is hard. I have to find a way to change this, for my son.

So what is my next step then? I have more anxiety than will allow me to even see a therapist. What if they deem me to be as unfit of a mother as I feel some nights when sobbing over a panic attack or crying in my office when he is at school? I can’t just “suck it up and get over it.” I have tried. Believe me, I have tried.

I feel crazy. Insane. Broken. But this is my normal. I just wish I didn’t feel so much shame and fear along with it. How do I find the inner strength I need to get help and not feel so broken? Help that will not judge me as being weak or unfit as a single parent?

My heart breaks for others who feel like I do, and I do my utmost to help them. I even write helpful blogs and books for a counselor who helps women like me!

Why then can’t I find what I need in order to help myself work through this? At what point will my son notice that his mommy isn’t like other mommies? I do not want to continue trying to bury my mental illness, but I do not know any other way to function. I am not strong, I am doing what I need to do in order to provide for this boy that the universe has seen fit to place in my care.

To find out more about Kerry and the children’s books she is writing, visit her website!
(Photo credit: Kerry White)