Proposed This I Believe essay – March 23, 2007
Our son had a brain disease which we did not know about, and he died very suddenly 3 years ago. (slight pause)
Our son had a mental illness which we did not know about, and he died by suicide 3 years ago.
Think about the difference in your reactions to those words, which say the exact same thing. The STIGMA. I believe this stigma attached to the words “mental illness” and “suicide”, which has caused far too much suffering and loss, must be understood and overcome.
Mental illness is not a character flaw. It IS a brain disease, believed biologic in origin, and caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Major depression is one of these brain diseases. It is a chronic disease just like any other chronic disease. There is still much to learn about the causes, but there is no doubt it can be just as lethal as cancer or heart disease. I quote: “Suicide, for many who suffer from untreated manic-depressive illness, is as much ‘wired’ into the disease as myocardial infarction is for those who have occluded coronary arteries.” Unquote. Note untreated. That’s from a book by Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., entitled: Touched with Fire, p. 42.
90% of people who die by suicide have a psychiatric, or “mental”, illness, most often a mood disorder: major depression or manic-depression. Those who have been saved from a suicide attempt have attested to feeling such unbearable mental pain that all they could focus on was a way to stop the pain.
I did not want to even once consider there was anything wrong with my son Drew beyond the normal mood swings, anxiety, & indecision teenagers have. We thought his irritability and withdrawing from us his last year at home were just normal signs of the “breaking away” which all teenagers must do. After he went off to college we felt sure his problems there were due to extreme homesickness and simply not liking the school. But there WAS more wrong with him. He was sick. And we did not know in time to save him. He died at age 19.
As Drew was growing up, like most moms, I read all I could about how to keep him healthy—but no where did I read about signs of mental illness. I believe my son would be alive today if the literature directed at parents had just as much about recognizing the signs of mood disorders as it does, for example, the signs of meningitis—especially since ~300 people die annually from meningitis versus ~6000 teens from suicide. Everyone, not just parents but EVERYONE, needs to learn the signs of major depression so we can all be on the lookout for it—in ourselves as well as in our loved ones. This disease is SO very treatable! We must wipe out the stigma which has kept us from acknowledging mental illness as the chronic, and treatable, disease it is.
Submitted in honor of Drew, and in recognition of National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week,
May 6-12, 2007. For more information, go to: www.afsp.org
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